Local Jewish leaders urge Swiss to act on bank deposits

The Jewish leaders who met with Consul General Alfred Baehler and Deputy Consul General Peter Hof urged the diplomats to convey to their government the need to release the assets as quickly as possible. They also called on the Swiss government to display moral leadership in the matter and to forcefully condemn recent instances of anti-Semitism there.

"If it were only the issue of the monetary reimbursement, I don't know whether or not San Francisco would get involved. But when you see in Western Europe an anti-Semitic sentiment being raised and the government doing nothing about it, it sends chills up our spines," said Mark Schickman, JCRC board president.

The hourlong meeting, requested by the JCRC, took place at the Swiss Consulate on Montgomery Street in San Francisco. Described as cordial and constructive by both sides, the meeting took place a day before three Swiss banks announced they would contribute $71 million to a fund for Holocaust victims.

The nine Jewish leaders included representatives of the JCRC, Anti-Defamation League, Holocaust Center of Northern California, American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress.

Baehler, who said he understood the concern of Jews worldwide over the issue, used the meeting to lay out his government's current actions. They include the creation of two commissions to investigate the issue and of a fund to compensate Holocaust victims and their heirs whose assets disappeared.

"I tried to make clear that the Swiss government is taking the concern very seriously," Baehler said.

Barbara Goodman, executive director of the Holocaust Center, told the consul general that she hopes any compensation program will be humane.

"So many of the reparation programs that have come out of Europe have [made it] so difficult for survivors to get any real meaningful reparations," Goodman said.

Since last summer, she said, the Holocaust Center has received about two dozen calls from people inquiring about possible claims against the Swiss.

Switzerland was officially neutral during World War II. But last year, charges arose that the Swiss laundered Nazi gold and held onto billions of dollars from Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

"The world has trusted the Swiss banking system…and all of a sudden we find that this trust was unwarranted," said longtime San Francisco Jewish leader William Lowenberg, the only Holocaust survivor who attended the meeting.

Lowenberg, who lived in Switzerland for three years after World War II, doesn't believe his immediate family has any dormant deposits in Swiss banks.

"But there are a considerable amount of Holocaust survivors who are suffering today and are impoverished and are entitled to the return of their assets," he said. "Time is running out."

Switzerland's image has been soiled several times in recent weeks.

At the new year, outgoing Swiss President Jean-Pascal Delamuraz accused Jews of "blackmail" and "extortion." Last month, a Swiss bank guard discovered Nazi-era documents about Jewish assets in a shredding room.

The Swiss ambassador to the United States, Carlo Jagmetti, resigned last week after a confidential diplomatic cable he wrote in December surfaced. In it, he labeled the conflict between the Jews and the Swiss a "war" and stated "most of the opponents cannot be trusted."

Baehler said Switzerland's public relations mistakes stem from the fact that his nation isn't accustomed to world scrutiny.

"Switzerland is not a country that is used to being on the front page," he said.

"I think the Swiss government was very little prepared to face such a crisis. I think there has been a bit of confusion at the beginning."

Baehler gave the Jewish leaders a copy of Jagmetti's three-page memo and said any charges of anti-Semitism resulted from statements taken out of context.

"Everyone who has read this paper…cannot come to the conclusion that he's anti-Semitic," Baehler said.

Schickman acknowledged that the memo "was not an anti-Semitic diatribe by any means. But it did take a position there was an attack on the Swiss by the Jews. That's not what's going on."

Added Ernest Weiner, AJCommittee regional executive director: "The language that was used, whether it was in context or out of context, was jarring at the least and irresponsible at the worst…If the tarnished image of Switzerland is to be rehabilitated, there has to be some understanding of what is appropriate and what is inappropriate."