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NEWS ANALYSIS Swiss bedeviled by inability to do enough to satisfy critics

WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 (JTA) – After seeing Switzerland”s image take a relentless beating during the past year, Swiss officials say they deserve credit for the positive steps they have taken. Just the same, some of the country”s critics remain as vociferous as ever, believing that only unremitting pressure on the Swiss government and Swiss banks will bring about a full accounting of how the country behaved during World War II. As part of a broad public relations campaign to counter charges about Switzerland”s wartime actions, the Swiss ambassador to the United States, Alfred Defago, has been visiting several American Jewish communities to put forward his country”s case. During a recent weeklong trip to California, the ambassador addressed an average of five to eight groups a day – about one-third of them Jewish. This week, Special Ambassador Thomas Borer, Switzerland”s leading troubleshooter for dealing with the accusations against his country, was scheduled to meet with reporters in New York and Washington. Beyond the arguments advanced by Swiss government officials, Swiss bankers are maintaining that they have come clean with a full accounting of Jewish assets deposited during the Holocaust era. Swiss officials have also pointed to the establishment earlier this year of a nearly $200 million Holocaust Memorial Fund to help needy survivors. After months of delays, the first payments from the fund were slated to be distributed this week at a ceremony in Riga, Latvia. But critics – including Holocaust survivors who say they still cannot lay claim to family assets – believe that the Swiss should not be let off easily. More than two years after World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman first met with the Swiss Bankers Association to demand a full accounting of accounts opened during the war, a total of nearly 16,000 names can be found on two separate lists of dormant bank accounts untouched since World War II. The combined value of the accounts is about $54.4 million, excluding accrued interest. Inquiries have come in almost daily since Swiss banks released the first list of some 1,800 names in July. So far about 30,000 people have inquired about that list, and around 3,000 have filed claims. There was no immediate data available on the response generated by a second list released late last month, which contained 14,000 dormant accounts. Of those, about 3,700 belonged to non-Swiss citizens, but the banks provided no assurances that they belonged to Holocaust survivors. Taken together with the July list, the total number of dormant accounts opened by foreigners stands at about 5,500. Some of the accounts opened by Swiss citizens were possibly opened on behalf of non-Swiss citizens and may have included Holocaust victims seeking a safe haven for their funds. The Swiss banks began their investigation of dormant accounts from World War II after being criticized by Jewish leaders for serving as the Nazis” bankers and for refusing to turn over accounts opened by Jews fleeing the Holocaust. The lists – viewed by some as a barometer of the banks” good faith – have done little to calm the furor that has mounted over the course of the past year. The World Jewish Congress characterized the latest Swiss list as “a step backwards,”” taking issue with the banks” decision not to make public the names on 64,000 accounts containing small balances. Jewish officials also criticized the banks for omitting the names of Nazi officials and for initially requiring that the list be searched on the Internet – at www.dormantaccounts.ch – by keyword name searches. U.S. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D”Amato (R-N.Y.) expressed outrage that the banks revealed thousands more dormant accounts after maintaining last year that they had been able to find only 774 accounts. Others dismissed the release of the second list as a public relations gimmick. After initially deciding to not publish the names in newspaper ads, the Swiss Bankers Association bowed to criticism and last week published all of the nearly 3,700 non-Swiss citizens on the latest list, taking out ads in the New York Times, the international edition of the Neue Zuercher Zeitung in Switzerland and Yediot Achronot in Israel. The association also reverted to an easier system on the Internet, allowing viewers to see the full list of names. The Swiss banks now insist that they have done everything possible to make the directories of unclaimed wealth complete. And they say they are anxious to begin making payments quickly. The banks “have no interest in keeping this money,”” a spokesman for the Swiss Bankers Association in New York said. “If there is a match of the name with someone on the list and it seems clear that this person or this family is the owner or heir of the account, it should be paid out very rapidly. There should be no questions about it.”” To that end, a Claims Resolution Tribunal, set up by an independent Swiss-Jewish panel now probing Swiss banks, is soon expected to begin the process of evaluating the approximately 3,000 claims that have been filed so far. For some Holocaust survivors, the lists have only increased their level of frustration. Many, like 72-year-old Estelle Sapir of New York, have not found their names on either list. She said that in 1947 officials at Credit Suisse in Geneva confirmed her father had an account there, but refused to turn it over to her without a death certificate. Fifty years later, seeing no end to the stonewalling, Sapir, along with thousands of other survivors, is continuing to press a class-action lawsuit against Swiss banks in the hope of bringing about a measure of justice. “These dormant account lists are not the solution to this problem,”” several of the survivors pushing the lawsuit said in a statement last month. “What about the money they took that is not accounted for, such as most of our claims?”” The Holocaust Claims Processing Office set up by the New York State Banking Committee has received more than 1,300 inquiries from people who believe they have accounts but did not find their names on either of the lists. About 300 have filed claims. “They don”t care about the money,”” said Alan Goodman, director of the office, which is serving survivors from around the world. “They are looking for justice. They want someone to acknowledge that they had these assets and that they were unjustly taken away from them.”” In the face of what they see as a never-ending stream of criticism about the way they have handled the search for dormant accounts, Swiss banking and government officials have, at times, sounded as exasperated as Holocaust victims. Responding to a recent letter from D”Amato criticizing the banks” release of the latest list, Swiss Bankers Association President Georg Krayer wrote, “No other country, including the U.S., has taken as many positive steps as Switzerland, and no other country”s banks have done what Swiss banks have done to bring justice to Holocaust survivors.”” “It is unfair to demand a search and then criticize the searchers for being successful,”” he added. During his recent trip to California, Defago struck one major theme in his public addresses and private meetings. “While it may sometimes appear that Switzerland moves slowly, this is because the Swiss are a deliberate and prudent people,”” he said in one typical instance. “We ask Americans to please respect democratic rule.”” Switzerland”s appeals for fairness and restraint have received some support from the Clinton administration. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had words of praise for the Swiss during a weekend visit to the capital of Bern – but she also urged the country to do more. “I commend the people of Switzerland for the progress you have made thus far and encourage you to continue your efforts to do justice, build trust, move toward closure and bring this painful period of examining the past to a satisfactory end,”” she said. And Stuart Eizenstat, undersecretary of state for economics and the administration”s point man on the Nazi gold issue, has credited the Swiss with making “extraordinary progress in the last year, more than any other neutral country.”” Nevertheless, some state government officials seem intent on taking punitive measures against the banks. A handful of U.S. states have halted dealings with some or all Swiss banks, while other states are considering such a move. All of this has resulted in growing frustration and anger in Switzerland. There is a feeling that for every move the country makes toward resolution of the issue, the goal posts are continually being moved by its foreign critics, some Swiss officials say. (JTA correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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