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Swiss parliamentarian urges repayment to Jewish groups

ZURICH, June 10 (JTA) — A member of the Swiss Parliament has called on the government to return to Jewish groups money they paid to support Jews who found haven in Switzerland during World War II. Switzerland has come under fire for turning away more than 30,000 Jewish refugees at the Swiss border during the war, a policy that led to thousands of deaths in the Holocaust. At the same time, however, Switzerland provided haven to some 25,000 Jewish refugees, who survived the war together with Switzerland’s 20,000 Jewish citizens. But the Jewish refugees were accepted on condition that Jewish groups pay in advance for their support. This policy did not extend to the 300,000 non-Jewish refugees who flocked to Switzerland and whose needs were paid for by the wartime Swiss government. This was a clear case of discrimination, said parliamentarian Verena Grendelmeier, a member of the centrist Independent Party. “This policy is unacceptable, and the government must therefore pay back the full amount of the money” to Jewish groups, Grendelmeier said this week in a speech before Parliament. Leading Swiss historian Jaques Picard has written that Jewish organizations paid approximately $45 million for the support of Jewish refugees in Switzerland. Of this total, he said, $7 million was paid by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland, the communal umbrella group, with the remainder of the money coming from Jewish organizations in the United States. At current valuations, the $45 million would be worth approximately $200 million today, according to a senior banker here. In a recent interview, Swiss Vice President and Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti said the government would not act on the matter until it heard the findings of the Independent Commission of Experts, the international panel of historians created by federal decree last December to study Switzerland’s wartime past. The Swiss Federal Council, or Cabinet, adopted the same stance Monday in response to Grendelmeier’s speech. The panel of historians is slated to issue its preliminary findings in February, according to Linus von Castelmur, a historian who serves as secretary-general of the Independent Commission of Experts. But most of the details regarding Switzerland’s policy toward Jewish refugees are already a matter of public record, Castelmur added. Thomas Lyssy, vice president of the Swiss Jewish federation, welcomed Grendelmeier’s call for compensation. “I am not happy with the answer of the government because most of its anti-Semitic immigration policy is very well-known already,” Lyssy said. (Foreign editor Mitchell Danow contributed to this report.)