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`The Swiss Are Finally Starting To Come Clean'


Finance: RESTITUTION

`THE SWISS ARE FINALLY STARTING TO COME CLEAN'

Secret meetings in Bern in late August led to a breakthrough to recover millions of dollars in Jewish property held in Swiss banks since the Nazi era. The talks between the Swiss Bankers Assn., World Jewish Congress Secretary General Israel Singer, and Swiss Jewish leader Rolf Bloch resulted in a surprising Sept. 12 announcement. The bankers said that a survey of its members begun in June had so far uncovered $34.1 million in 893 accounts opened prior to the end of World War II. The Swiss also agreed to open an office to help Holocaust survivors and heirs find lost accounts.

Jewish leaders meeting in Brussels to discuss the affair and the recovery of other Jewish property in Europe were not buying the figure. "We are concerned with the Swiss attempts to deflate the amount," says Singer.

HIMMLER'S LOOT. For the Jewish leaders, the search has only just begun. "We have new documents from the Stasi files and archives in Eastern Europe that we plan to present to the Swiss," says Singer. The records of the Stasi, the former East German secret police, refer to a large shipment to Switzerland of gold, diamonds, foreign currency, and paintings taken as payment by SS boss Heinrich Himmler for the freedom of 13,000 Hungarian Jews in 1945. Various estimates of the current value of the shipment range from several hundred million to $1 billion.

The bankers had been saying until recently that the issue had been resolved in 1963, when the Swiss government ordered the banks to report all monies of Holocaust survivors. That sweep netted about $2.2 million, which was handed over to Swiss Jewish organizations. The Swiss dispersed $1.7 million of that to a small number of claimants.

"The Swiss are finally starting to come clean and are trying to put the issue to rest 50 years after the end of the Second World War," says Singer. He and others, including WJC President Edgar Bronfman, are anticipating lengthy negotiations before any final agreement is reached. The first formal talks were to begin on Sept. 14 with meetings between a team led by Bronfman and a group of Swiss bankers and Swiss President Kasper Villiger.

Bronfman has decided to set up a special committee made up of bankers, Holocaust survivors, and Jewish leaders to deal with the search. The committee will be responsible for collecting names of individuals and companies and handing them over to the Swiss Bankers Assn. for examination.

SEARCH FEES. A central contact office to assist searchers will be set up next year and run by the banking ombudsman's office, a watchdog created by the banking association. However, the bankers rejected Jewish demands to conduct searches free of charge for Holocaust survivors and heirs and said the amount of the fee is yet to be determined. Up to now, the banks have been charging $85 to $850 for searches, which have in most cases failed to turn up anything.

Bronfman and the WJC intend to keep pressing the Swiss. "We've waited 50 years to resolve what has become a very painful issue," Singer says. But armed with new documentation and public opinion, these Jewish representatives believe they have a better chance of setting right an old wrong.By Neal Sandler in Jerusalem, with John Parry in Geneva


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