Swiss Accounting: Returning Stolen Money from Jews During World War II
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight to the Swiss Holocaust fund story and to Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston.
PAUL SOLMAN: For months Swiss banks and government officials have been barraged with criticism of their behavior during and after World War II. At issue, financial claims of Holocaust victims and broader questions of moral responsibility by the Swiss in their dealings with Nazi, Germany. Kwame Holman brings the story up to date.
KWAME HOLMAN: The controversy became news last year when the World Jewish Congress uncovered newly declassified records at Washington’s national archives. These documents suggested some Swiss banks were holding substantial assets which rightfully belonged to Holocaust survivors. The president of the World Jewish Congress voiced his concern at a congressional hearing on the matter in December.
EDGAR BRONFMAN, President, World Jewish Congress: (December 11, 1996) Mr. Chairman, to put it concisely, we are seeking moral and material restitution. During the past six months we have been undertaking research in the U.S. archives to determine the facts behind what is undoubtedly the greatest robbery in the history of mankind.
KWAME HOLMAN: Thousands of claims were filed by people like Gizella Washes, whose parents died in the Holocaust.
GIZELLA WASHES, Holocaust Survivor: They can’t help me to bring my family back but at least justice because this–these people, they work for their money. And it’s their money, so why should the Swiss keep it?
KWAME HOLMAN: Early estimates put current claims against the Swiss banks in the billions of dollars, though the banks dispute some figures are far too high. They also deny deliberately withholding assets from Holocaust victims or their families. Through most of their history the Swiss have prided themselves on their neutrality, but the current controversy has led some critics to question Switzerland’s stance in the context of the Holocaust. This week the Swiss government officially established a special compensation fund for Holocaust victims. The fund, which goes into effect tomorrow, gets its money, the equivalent of $71 million to start, from three major Swiss banks. In an agreement with the government Jewish groups will help administer the fund.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now for more on the fund and the issues surrounding it, we’re joined by Thomas Borer, the head of the Swiss Government’s Task Force on Nazi victims’ assets. Mr. Borer, thanks for joining us. How’s the fund going to work? In other words, how will the money be distributed?
THOMAS BORER, Swiss Task Force on Nazi Victims’ Assets: We established an agreement with the owners, the World Jewish Restitution Organization, representative of the state of Israel, and representative of gypsies, a special organization. We have an executive council out of seven eminent persons, and a council in which the–all the organizations are represented. If there is a Holocaust survivor or his family who are living in need and who need support, they have to address their request to one of the organizations dealing with this kind of question in the case of a Jewish Holocaust survivors, to the World Jewish Restitution Organization, or one of its organizations, and then this organization is going to channel the request to the special fund.
PAUL SOLMAN: So is this a fund to return money to families with dormant accounts, such as the woman we saw in that piece?
THOMAS BORER: No. No. No. This is totally different from the dormant account. The dormant accounts are dealt with through the Volcker Commission. And the Volcker Commission is together with the Swiss ombudsman trying to establish the rightful owners of dormant accounts. The special fund has nothing to do with those dormant accounts and is totally independent. It is for Holocaust survivors who are living in need.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now, do people have to provide evidence? What kind of evidence do people have to provide?
THOMAS BORER: They don’t have to provide evidence that they had relationship with Switzerland, or that they had an account in Switzerland. They just have to prove that they are living in need, and we, of course, base our support very much on the established guidelines of the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the special fund. Executive council has to establish clear-cut guidelines.
PAUL SOLMAN: How large is the fund now, and how large might it become?
THOMAS BORER: The fund for the time being has 71 million U.S. dollars. The Swiss business community made a clear declaration of intent, but they also are going to contribute with a considerable amount of money. One talks about another $30 million.
PAUL SOLMAN: Today Reuters reported that a leading Swiss industrialist–I’m reading–Kristof Blaher- I’ve lost my place–said that the Swiss should not apologize for their business dealings with the Nazis in World War II. Do you view this reparation funds as an apology, and do you think the Swiss ought to be apologizing?
THOMAS BORER: This reparation fund is in no way an admission of guilt. This fund is established because Switzerland the Swiss in a certain way came out of the Second World War in a better position, in a more competitive position. We didn’t–we were not destroyed by the Nazi war machine. We were not involved in the most horrible part of the Second World War; therefore, we had a great advantage. And we are thankful and grateful to this position and, therefore, in the best humanitarian spirit of Switzerland we established this fund.
PAUL SOLMAN: So why does Mr. Blaher say that you are apologizing and that this shouldn’t be done precisely because it’s read as an apology?
THOMAS BORER: He didn’t say that we should apologize. There were–especially Sen. D’Amato said that the Swiss are found guilty and we are only discussing now about the high of the penalty. And I think the Jewish groups, especially the World Jewish Congress, made it always clear that they don’t hold the Swiss of today responsible for what happened during the Second World War. They only held us responsible for how we deal with our history. And the World Jewish Congress, the U.S. government, Israeli government, said on many occasions that they are more than pleased with what the Swiss are doing. We are doing the right thing.
PAUL SOLMAN: But I also read that the headline in today’s largest–this morning–in today’s largest Swiss newspaper said about Sen. D’Amato–”D’Amato, That’s Enough”–and that that was the headline, a reference to the Republican Senator who’s been spearheading the campaign so far.
THOMAS BORER: Absolutely. This represents a spirit of a lot of Swiss. A lot of Swiss think that they have now over the last months done everything which can be expected because we have established independent historical commission who is going to find the truth, historical truth, who has full access to all private and government archives. Banking secrecies are lifted. We have established the Volcker Commission which is going to deal together with independent, international accounting companies with the dormant accounts. We have established a special fund. But, nevertheless, Sen. D’Amato yesterday, they go–make unfair statements against Switzerland. And, therefore, they take the position that it’s now enough, that there’s undifferentiated, unsubstantiated accusation against our country.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now, on the issue of neutrality, as we saw in the piece, there’s been a lot of criticism of Swiss actions recently. And Thomas Friedman, I’m going to read again, of the “New York Times,” wrote: “What does it mean to be neutral between the perpetrators of the worst crimes against humanity in modern history and their victims?”. How do you respond to that?
THOMAS BORER: The big problem is that nobody understands really what means neutrality. Neutrality doesn’t mean a moral attitude. Switzerland was morally never neutral. During the whole time the larger authority of the Swiss, also our government, was clearly on the side of the allies. Neutrality in international law means only non-participation in a war. And Switzerland didn’t participate in the Second World War for obvious reasons. Starting from ’41 we were surrounded by the Nazi war machine and the allies of the Nazis, and we were a small country. And in that position we were never able to take another position than neutrality. We wouldn’t have survived the Second World War as we did if we were not neutral.
PAUL SOLMAN: But you didn’t let some Jews into the country, for example, I mean, many Jews into the country.
THOMAS BORER: This is one of the dark sides. Switzerland didn’t let in 30,000 refugees, but on the other hand, we let in over 200,000–over 200,000 refugees, among them 20,000–27,000 Jews. So there were a lot of Jewish saved by Swiss. Often it’s not white or dark; it’s just gray. We have a lot of sun and a lot of shadow.
PAUL SOLMAN: All right. Well, thank you, Mr. Borer, very much for being with us.
THOMAS BORER: You’re more than welcome.