Swiss banks open fund for Holocaust victims

GENEVA (AP) — Hoping to end an acrimonious dispute with Jewish groups, three Swiss banking giants announced today they would contribute $71 million to open a humanitarian fund for Holocaust victims.
Switzerland has come under fire the past 18 months, accused of sitting on up to $7 billion in World War II-era bank accounts from Jewish depositors that have been untouched for decades.
Credit Suisse, Swiss Bank Corp. and Union Bank of Switzerland said they hoped their contribution would be a “constructive solution” and help solve lingering questions over Jewish assets deposited in Swiss banks before and during World War II.
“We have launched this as a beginning,” said a Union Bank of Switzerland spokeswoman, Gertrud Erismann. “The intention is that others will also take part.”
The $71 million the banks contributed was meant as a symbolic gesture, she said.
Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, who has accused Switzerland of acting as Adolf Hitler’s banker, called the announcement “an important first step in dealing with this tragic, disgraceful period.”
“It’s a breakthrough, an acknowledgment of the wrongdoing,” D’Amato said.
In New York, World Jewish Congress executive director Elan Steinberg welcomed the action as a long overdue good-faith measure and said: “We have every confidence that appropriate steps will follow so that full moral and material restitution will be made.”
He added that the $71 million did not reflect what may eventually be found in dormant accounts of Jewish victims of Nazi crimes. Swiss officials say the actual amount in its accounts from the Holocaust era is a small fraction of the billions alleged by Jewish groups and D’Amato.
Jewish groups called last year for a fund 2 times as large as today’s as a “gesture of goodwill” to Holocaust victims and their families who have been trying to trace the whereabouts of loved ones’ assets unclaimed since the war.
D’Amato has accused Switzerland of laundering gold and valuables looted from the central banks of occupied countries and from the 6 million Jews sent to their deaths by the Nazi regime.
The New York senator accused the Swiss of intentionally stalling and deliberately using their famous bank secrecy laws to outlast Holocaust survivors who are growing old and dying.
He released World War II-era documents that he said shows the Swiss handled about $1 billion in Nazi gold even though they knew the riches had been looted in Belgium. D’Amato said Sweden refused to take the gold but the Swiss did.
Switzerland, a neutral country surrounded by German forces and their allies during the war, provided a haven for 27,000 Jewish refugees and bank safety for their assets.
But the country also turned away 30,000 other Jewish refugees, and heirs of some Holocaust victims claim they have never been able to recover the assets of family members killed by the Nazis.
Switzerland previously paid some compensation for unclaimed assets, but the issue was revived with the 50th anniversary of the war’s end.
The Swiss government agreed in principle to establish a humanitarian fund last month — but only after outgoing Swiss President Jean-Pascal Delamuraz accused Jewish groups lobbying for the fund of “blackmail,” prompting an international outcry and a public relations debacle.
The banks today said the account at the Swiss National Bank — the central bank — will be opened later this month and will be left so others can contribute.