Wartime Dealings in Gold, Jewish Money, Haunt Swiss Nation's Banks and Politicians Consider Creating Reconciliation Fund

By Cathryn J. Prince, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 22, 1996 | Go to article overview

Wartime Dealings in Gold, Jewish Money, Haunt Swiss Nation's Banks and Politicians Consider Creating Reconciliation Fund


Cathryn J. Prince, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Switzerland seems stuck inside an Escher painting. Every time the government thinks it has made two steps forward regarding its handling of World War II-era accounts and Nazi gold, it finds it has actually taken two steps back.

Pressured by Holocaust survivors, Jewish groups, and politicians, the Alpine country began an investigation that has unearthed a few dormant accounts of death-camp victims.

This week, however, in addition to stepped-up audits of Swiss banks, talk has turned to a possible reconciliation fund for victims. Jewish leaders called Monday for an interim payment, noting that it may be years before the inquiry is complete. "The question has been asked directly and now we must give some kind of answer," says Victor Ruffy, chairman of the foreign policy committee of the lower house of parliament. Bankers and politicians say debate is just starting in parliament and bankers are divided on the issue. Also this week, former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, who heads a committee established by Swiss banks and the World Jewish Congress, said that three US accounting firms have been hired to comb through Swiss bank records from 1933 to 1946 to seek unclaimed assets of victims or their survivors. The aim is to finish the search by mid-1998. How much money they will find remains uncertain, but charges of questionable dealings have been pouring in for months. Among the allegations: *That there were secret compensation deals between Switzerland and East European nations. *That the Swiss-based Bank of International Settlements, which represents the world's central banks, allowed Nazi Germany to trade in stolen gold, possibly helping to extend the war. *That Swiss banks hold vast amounts of gold looted by Nazis and money from Jews who perished in the Holocaust. "We have to have complete transparency on Switzerland's relationship as a financial center with the former Nazi Germany," says Flavio Cotti, Swiss foreign minister. "We want an investigation which gives us a complete picture." "This is exploding," adds Jean-Phillipe Tissieres, a Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman. Amid nationwide soul-searching, the Swiss Bankers Association in Basel for the first time has said banks were too narrow-minded in the years after the war when families came looking for lost accounts. The association said banks interpreted laws too narrowly, that such actions were inexcusable, and that they will work to right the wrongs. Among the most recent allegations is that in the late 1960s, Switzerland used unclaimed bank accounts of those killed in the Holocaust to compensate Swiss businessmen who lost property after the Communist takeover in Poland and Hungary. While the Swiss government first denied that such a deal occurred, after examining its own archives it recast the story. …

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