The World Jewish Congress is openly calling on Switzerland to create a preliminary compensation fund to begin settling claims of Holocaust victims whose wealth vanished into the Swiss banking system more than 50 years ago.
“The time has come for the competent authorities to make a good faith financial gesture” so that “those who have suffered may yet see in their lifetime some measure of justice done,” said Edgar Bronfman, WJC president.
Bronfman made the appeal in testimony before the House Banking and Financial Services Committee, which held a daylong hearing Wednesday to explore missing Jewish assets and the role Switzerland and its banks played during and after World War II.
His public appeal follows earlier indications that Jewish and Swiss officials were considering concluding a preliminary settlement. Bronfman did not specify a dollar amount, but informed sources said the total being considered was $250 million.
The committee also heard testimony from Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat, who is the point man for the Clinton administration on the issue; Paul Volcker, who is heading an independent international panel probing the issue; and Georg Krayer, chairman of the Swiss Bankers Association.
Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee who has been conducting his own investigation, echoed Bronfman’s request.
D’Amato said in his testimony that the Swiss government should make a “goodwill gesture” in the face of what he called “damning information that is emerging” about Switzerland’s wartime past.
Thomas Borer, head of a Swiss task force coordinating Switzerland’s own investigation, pledged swift action from the Swiss government.
But he gave no indication that restitution would be made any time soon.
“Nothing is more important to the people and government of Switzerland than establishing the complete truth in this matter as swiftly and humanely as possible,” Borer said.
“We are fully aware that nothing less that our reputation as an honorable country and reliable friend is at stake.”
His words came as Switzerland’s Parliament gave final approval this week to launch a thorough probe into Swiss financial dealings with Nazi Germany and the fate of Jewish assets deposited in Swiss banks.
An independent commission, empowered to lift Switzerland’s banking secrecy rules, is expected to start work next month. Borer said the investigation would likely take between two and three years.
If assets belonging to Holocaust victims are still being wrongfully held in Switzerland, Borer said, his government will make “every effort to return them to their rightful owners” or “relevant charities.”
Bronfman said Swiss officials had made a similar promise to him more than a year ago, but “not one franc has been transferred as restitution.”
“Nobody should be allowed to make a profit from the ashes of the Holocaust,” he added.
The WJC claims that Swiss banks hold $7 billion in assets and interest belonging to Jews. Swiss bankers have put the number at $32 million, based on a 1995 investigation that turned up 775 dormant Jewish accounts.
In his testimony, D’Amato accused the Swiss government and Swiss banks of complicity with the Nazis.
“They hid in the shadows, concluding deals with the genocidal murderers of the Holocaust, and through administrative decrees and secret deals with Communist governments, acted to deny the rightful owners their assets in Swiss banks,” D’Amato said.
He added that the “injustice is being perpetuated by an almost arrogant contemptuous establishment that has repeatedly rebuffed” efforts to trace the missing assets.
Borer, who has accused D’Amato of using unverified documents and presenting them as facts, cautioned against “hasty conclusions and unsubstantiated claims.”
Borer added that he visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum here prior to appearing before Congress in order to reflect amid the surroundings on the way the Switzerland has been handling the matter.
“I believe my country is doing everything it can,” he said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.