Swiss Squirm at What Holocaust Payout Implies

Some defend nation's World War II role after banks agree to pay $1.25 billion.

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.

The bank has called an unusual meeting today of its 40-person governing council to discuss whether to contribute more money. It is in a difficult position because Switzerland's historical commission has found that bank officials purposely didn't inquire into the origins of Nazi gold, even though they knew Germany was looting gold from occupied countries and from Holocaust victims.

Despite these findings, many older Swiss adamantly oppose any payments on the grounds they are equivalent to admitting guilt for wartime activities. The Swiss have never accepted the American view that Switzerland's neutrality was itself a choice that aided the Nazi war effort.

"War is the absence of all rules," says Mr. Mottaz, explaining the Swiss view. "Who can judge what was done in that era?"

But a Jewish survivor of two concentration camps, Leon Reich, disagrees. "The Swiss have never been in a war. They think they are always perfect," says Mr. Reich, who lives in Bienne.

Much to the relief of most Swiss, some of the focus is now turning to the United States, where the Holocaust Assets Historical Commission will be set up this fall. The body, composed of private, government, and congressional officials, will review Holocaust assets in the US from 1933 to 1945, including art and insurance policies.

Insurers may pay too

Earlier, US State Department official Stuart Eizenstat oversaw two reports, based on material gleaned from American archives, on wartime Holocaust assets. Those reports have been completed, with the second issued in June, says Bennett Freeman, a senior adviser to Eizenstat.

The presidential commission "will not necessarily be a vehicle to return money, but a series of reports on where the assets are," Mr. Freeman said. The commission is due to wrap up its work by Dec. 31, 1999. The date meets a deadline set last December at a London conference on Nazi gold. Forty participating governments pledged to complete their reviews, and to have plans to return assets by that date.

Swiss and other European insurance companies are intensely negotiating on wartime life-insurance policies (see story below). Swiss insurers were not part of the bank accord. They are seen as eager to settle because several large European insurance companies are under investigation by US regulators on charges they refused to pay out Jewish claims.

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