Swiss Squirm at What Holocaust Payout Implies Some Defend Nation's World War II Role after Banks Agree to Pay $1.25 Billion

By Elizabeth Olson, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 21, 1998 | Go to article overview

Swiss Squirm at What Holocaust Payout Implies Some Defend Nation's World War II Role after Banks Agree to Pay $1.25 Billion


Elizabeth Olson, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Last week's landmark accord in which two banks will pay about $1.25 billion to Holocaust survivors and their families has left Swiss hopeful that the pact will put an end to a wrenching chapter of history. But it won't be easy.

The payment, arranged between the country's two largest commercial banks, the United Bank of Switzerland AG and the Credit Suisse Group, and representatives of American Jews, was received sourly here as an admission of guilt that many Swiss are far from ready to make.

But in interviews, Swiss people said they would back a different proposed $4.7 billion global humanitarian fund to help those of any religious or ethnic background who are in need.

For many Swiss, the Holocaust accord was seen as a move by the banks to protect their business interests at the expense of the country's honor.

"It's not the money itself, but we don't trust the people" who will handle the money, says Carmen Mader, a housewife from Weinfeld, referring to the banks.

"The humanitarian fund, on the other hand, is no problem. It's in Swiss hands," says Mrs. Mader. A government-appointed board would oversee how that money is spent.

A new 'humanitarian fund'

The proposed $4.7 billion Swiss humanitarian fund, to be called the Solidarity Foundation, is meant to aid victims of poverty, disasters, and human rights abuses both in Switzerland and abroad. It must be approved by voters directly, as part of the country's direct democracy system, before it can go into effect.

"I look at it as the new 20th-century Henry Dunant," says Luca Mottaz, a graphic designer from Yverdon. Mr. Dunant, a Swiss businessman, founded the Red Cross, the international symbol of Switzerland's humanitarian commitment.

In a public opinion poll conducted shortly after the bank deal was announced, two thirds of respondents said they favor the fund, which requires the government to sell a substantial portion of the country's gold reserves.

The government has said the Solidarity Foundation is separate from the question of Holocaust assets. But since the foundation was announced in the wake of traumatic revelations about the country's wartime actions, it has been linked in the public's mind with the painful examination of Switzerland's history.

The most immediate difficulty facing the Swiss is whether the Swiss National Bank will chip in money for the Holocaust accord. The bank already donated about $66.4 million to a separate fund set up last year to aid needy Holocaust victims and their families. …

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