Magazine article The Spectator

It Wasn't Only the Swiss

Magazine article The Spectator

It Wasn't Only the Swiss

Article excerpt

THE JOURNALIST who uncovered the scandal didn't pull any punches. `At the very moment our Jews were being arrested and sent to German death camps,' he wrote, `they were also being systematically and efficiently robbed of all their possessions by our police and our government officials ... not all of them Nazis.' The special office created for the operation bore the chillingly poetic name of Liquidation Board for Confiscated Jewish Property. It was part of the Ministry of Justice. Gold and silver taken from the Jews was handed over to the German SS, while the rest of the wealth - real estate, insurance, cash - was divided up among the locals. Personal possessions, from pianos to paintings; were sold at auction. The few Jews who escaped Auschwitz returned to find their homes and apartments occupied by strangers. Survivors were `fobbed off with mere crumbs of their former property'.

The culprits described in this unpalatable scenario were not the greedy, despicable Swiss. Nor were they bestial Eastern Europeans or snivelling, collaborating Vichy Frenchmen. They were not among the usual second world war villains we so love to hate. They were Norwegians emancipated, politically correct, ThirdWorld-loving Norwegians. Bjorn Westlie, the journalist who uncovered the case during research for a story on the anniversary of VE Day, found the orderly lists of stolen Jewish property in the National Archive in Oslo. The documents were neither classified nor inaccessible. It was just that no one had ever troubled to look presumably on the assumption that good Norwegians would never do a thing like that.

But it's the Swiss we love to hate, and recently we have been able to indulge this to the full. New revelations about Swiss behaviour during the war have triggered hefty bouts of good old-fashioned Swissbashing. 'Switzerland', wrote the Economist, `is by no means nowadays a model international citizen.' `Even at the best of times, Swiss bankers are unloved,' growled the Times. `When they are seen to deny justice to victims of the Nazi Holocaust and their descendants, they are hated.'

Surely it comes as no surprise to hear that the Swiss didn't behave well during the war. For decades we have heard how they turned Jewish refugees back at the border, how it was the Swiss who made the helpful suggestion that the Germans mark the passports of Jewish citizens with a 'J' to ease identification. Nor should we be caught off guard by 'revelations' that Swiss bankers may still be hoarding money from depositors who died in the Holocaust. Now intelligence records uncovered in the United States and a memorandum published by the British Foreign Office say that the Swiss accepted huge quantities of German gold during the war - some of which, says the World Jewish Congress (WJC), `may have even included melted dental fillings from Jews killed in German death camps'. Greville Janner, a Labour deputy in Parliament who has been pushing for investigations of the issue, came up with a memorable picture: `Rivers of gold flowed out of Nazi Germany, and the banks of that river are in Switzerland.'

But is his picture correct? The history of the second world war suggests that the flow of stolen Jewish property was more like a delta than a smoothly flowing stream. The British press, obsessed with the gnomes of Zurich, have managed to overlook that the WJC and the World Jewish Restitution Organisation have been quietly putting the screws on other so-called neutral powers lately. The Swedes, like the Swiss, found themselves encircled by Axis powers at the beginning of the war, and despite their professed neutrality they were only too happy to sell the Germans urgently needed iron ore in exchange for looted gold and to allow safe passage to German troops on their way to invade the Soviet Union. Last year Edgar Bronfman, president of the WJC, accused Swedish banks of hoarding `vast sums' during the war, including money and gold robbed from Jews or deposited by them in Sweden for safe-keeping and then never recovered. …

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