Wanted: Historians to Deliberate Tellingly on the Role of the Gnomes

Article excerpt

Advertisements have appeared in the Swiss press seeking historians with an interest in banking and the Second World War. But academics in a hurry need not apply. The commission set up to investigate Switzerland's Nazi links will first meet next month, and the jobs touted are on a five-year contract.

That the announcement appeared at all is progress, of sorts: an inquiry will go ahead in Switzerland, just as similar investigations are launched across Europe. But Europe is only beginning to get to grips with the bigger questions about what happened to Jewish assets looted or stolen during the war.

The Swiss are meticulous and even though the last Holocaust survivors who might benefit from the study are approaching the end of their natural life-span, the authorities will not condone haste. The scholars are expected to submit their first report in summer, upon which the government will decide whether it should pay compensation. The verdict from the ivory tower will be the last piece in a jigsaw being assembled in New York and in Swiss vaults. In the past three months researchers have established that Switzerland did knowingly buy gold looted by the Nazis. It is also now beyond dispute that much Jewish money deposited in Swiss banks might not have been collected because of the obduracy of the Gnomes of Zurich. Was it really necessary, for instance, to demand of the heirs of Holocaust victims the account number, plus the password, plus the death certificate of the deceased? One does not need to have a PhD in history to be aware that Auschwitz did not issue the latter. The three biggest banks admitted as much when they launched a compensation fund this week in anticipation of stashes yet to be uncovered. Who will benefit will be known soon, certainly sooner than five years from now, when Jewish groups working since May with three accounting firms have finished looking through the books - the ones not shredded "accidentally". The banking authorities waived secrecy laws to facilitate this study, chaired by Paul Volcker, ex-head of the US Federal Reserve, and the work is said to be well advanced. The only catch is that disbursement of compensation will be co-ordinated by the government, which will not start handing out money until it is convinced of its predecessors' guilt. Back to the ivory tower. This is not, however, another case of Swiss obfuscation. The federal government fears that if it were to hand over public funds without good reason, it could be vetoed by plebiscites. The issue has gone way beyond the frontiers of Switzerland. Portugal, in particular, has been shocked into action by claims from the US that in 1943-1944 Germany sent to Spain and Portugal 280 truckloads of looted gold laundered through Swiss banks. Portuguese press reports reckon the lion's share, 100 tons, could have gone into the vaults of the Bank of Portugal. US-based Nazi-hunters claim the gold, worth perhaps $250m to $500m, was plundered from banks in occupied Europe or from melted-down teeth and jewellery of concentration-camp victims. The Bank of Portugal has appointed the historian Joaquim da Costa Leite to comb its 1939-1945 archives. …