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New fund for survivors hailed as `historic step’ to get justice

LONDON, Dec. 2 (JTA) — Jewish officials have hailed the creation of a new international fund to benefit Holocaust survivors as a “historic step forward” in the tortuous path to restitution and justice. As some 240 delegates from 41 countries gathered here Tuesday at the opening of an unprecedented three-day conference on Nazi gold, Britain and the United States pledged millions to a fund the two countries created in recognition of debts owed to Holocaust victims whose gold was seized by the Nazis. The United States said it would contribute an initial $4 million to the fund as part of a $25 million contribution over three years. Stuart Eizenstat, who serves as U.S. undersecretary of state for economic affairs and is the Clinton administration’s point man on the Nazi gold issue, said the creation of the fund “extends both a moral gesture and a material contribution to justice, however little and late, for Holocaust survivors.” British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who organized the conference, said his country will donate $1.7 million to the Nazi Persecution Relief Fund to try to “ensure that the unbearable tragedy of living through the Holocaust is not compounded by an old age marked by the fear and sadness of poverty.” The conference was convened under the auspices of the Tripartite Gold Commission, set up in 1946 by the United States, Britain and France to restore Nazi-looted gold to its rightful owners. During the last 50 years, the commission distributed some 337 tons of looted gold — 98.6 percent of the amount in its pool — to 15 countries whose treasuries were plundered as the Nazis marched across Europe. Only 5.6 tons of gold remains in the commission’s pool, and the United States, Britain and France have asked countries with claims to the gold to voluntarily contribute their shares of the remaining bullion either to the international fund or to survivors in their own countries. Luxembourg and Argentina, which has no claims to the Tripartite gold, said Tuesday they were ready to pay into the fund. Whatever the total of the new fund, Jewish officials said, it is the initiative rather than the final figures that count. “If we are astonished that half a century after the Holocaust there is an international conference of 41 countries dealing with the issue of Holocaust-era assets, how much more astonishing is it that 52 years later they would initiate a multilateral fund to deal with this wrenching question of the Second World War?” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. The World Jewish Restitution Organization has said that the allocations from the fund — which has taken the form of a bank account opened by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in Britain’s name — be determined by the Jewish people. Eizenstat, meanwhile, told the conference that the United States had decided to make the contribution “because of our own actions and inactions after the war and because of the urgent needs of those Holocaust survivors who have received little or no compensation in the intervening years.” The creation of the fund comes amid revelations that the United States, seven years after World War II ended, melted down personal effects belonging to Hitler’s victims and turned them over to the Tripartite commission for distribution to European countries. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York was planning to release long-secret documents at the conference showing that the United States created 40 gold bars out of gold plates, buttons, coins and pipe- smoking ornaments recovered after the war. For decades, the Tripartite commission has insisted that the gold it returned to Europe was composed entirely of monetary gold — ingots stolen by the Nazis from central banks. A Swiss study released this week, meanwhile, concluded that the Nazis stripped $146 million worth of gold from Holocaust victims and other individuals, accounting for one-sixth of all the gold Germany acquired during the war. That $146 billion is worth about $1.3 billion at today’s prices. The disclosure is certain to buttress Jewish claims that more money is owed to Holocaust survivors as compensation. And given Switzerland’s fervent trade in Nazi gold, pressure is likely to intensify on the Alpine nation to make additional contributions, specifically into the new international fund. Switzerland, for its part, swiftly ruled out the possibility of contributing to the fund. “There is no need” because “we have our own fund,” said Special Ambassador Thomas Borer, Switzerland’s leading troubleshooter for all issues related to its wartime past. He was referring to the Holocaust Memorial Fund established earlier this year to aid needy survivors. Nevertheless, Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, said this week that Switzerland needs to pay a “nine- or 10-figure sum” to Holocaust survivors in order to bring closure to the whole range of material claims related to its questionable wartime activities. “Switzerland was the initial recipient of 85 percent of all the gold Germany shipped to foreign locations from March 1938 to June 1945,” Bronfman said at the conference. “It therefore still owes between $2 billion to $3 billion if it is to conform with a 1943 Allied declaration that all looted gold handled by the neutrals must be returned after the war,” Bronfman said at the conference. Switzerland rejected the proposal outright. “We fail to understand these most recent commands of Mr. Bronfman,” Borer said Tuesday at a news conference. “We think such extreme, all-inclusive financial demands obviously lack any objective basis and contradict our desire to satisfy all justified claims.” Although much attention was focused on financial compensation at the opening of the conference, the moral debt owed Holocaust survivors was on the minds of many of the Jewish delegates. “We are not here taking merely about gold or items of art or securities or other material assets,” Bronfman said. “This is about justice and the quest not only for material restitution but moral restitution as well.” In his speech, Bronfman called for the creation of a permanent commission to continue the examination of looted assets. “As we approach the end of this century, there is a palpable yearning to assure future generations that we have faced the past honestly so that we may have an honorable future.”