The president of Switzerland has backtracked on a vow to help Holocaust survivors made by a predecessor.
In an interview this week, Swiss President Kaspar Villiger said it would not be legally possible to make payments to survivors or Jewish groups from a $5 billion foundation to help victims of genocide, war and natural disasters.
In March 1997, then-President Arnold Koller proposed the creation of the foundation during a speech to Parliament, saying it should be used to help the “victims of poverty and catastrophes,” including victims of the Holocaust.
To create the foundation, the Swiss National Bank was to sell off some $5 billion of its gold reserves. Interest and other investment income from the proceeds of that sale would generate some $200 million annually to support humanitarian causes, Koller said at the time.
The foundation was proposed at a time when Switzerland was confronting charges of financial complicity with Nazi Germany and of hoarding the deposits of Holocaust survivors.
U.S. and Jewish officials applauded Koller’s announcement, calling it a sincere attempt to come to grips with Switzerland’s past.
Under Swiss law, the foundation had to be approved by a national referendum, but the vote was repeatedly postponed. A referendum is now slated to be held this fall.
In the years since Koller first announced the foundation, there were reports that survivors would not receive payments from it. But such reports were promptly denied by Swiss officials.
This time, however, officials made sure there was no misunderstanding Villiger’s statement.
“The firm promises from former President Koller are no longer valid,” a spokesman for Villiger told JTA.
Noah Flug, who serves as secretary-general of an umbrella group representing Holocaust survivors in Israel, reacted indignantly.
“The Swiss assured us that Holocaust survivors and their organizations would get payments from the foundation,” Flug told JTA
Some Swiss Jewish leaders, however, were not surprised by Villiger’s statement.
“For quit a while, we knew that Holocaust victims would not get a dollar out of the foundation,” said Thomas Lyssy, vice president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland.
One Jewish leader who spoke on condition of anonymity told JTA that the Swiss government “came under heavy pressure from all the parties represented in the coalition to prevent Holocaust survivors from getting any restitution from the foundation.”
“We did not want to fight this, because we realized that the chances of the foundation being approved this fall are very poor,” the leader said.
Referring to recent attacks in Switzerland, the leader added that “in the present atmosphere of increasing anti-Semitism, we didn’t want to be held responsible” if the foundation is not approved in the upcoming referendum.
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.