Jewish-assets debate continues as Swiss banks find $7 million

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BERN — The stewards of Switzerland's highly touted Holocaust Memorial Fund have concluded their first meeting with just one thing certain: They intend to issue the first payments to the oldest, neediest survivors in Eastern Europe.

But members of the fund's executive committee appear to disagree over when the checks will be issued and how much recipients will get.

Their indecision — which may prolong the controversy over the fate of looted Jewish assets in Switzerland — comes amid a new report that Switzerland let the Nazis transport Jews to death camps through their country during World War II.

Rolf Bloch, the committee's Swiss chairman, announced after the committee met Monday in Bern that it had authorized an initial payment of $12 million to survivors in Eastern Europe, of which $2 million would go to non-Jewish survivors.

Payments would not begin until after the next meeting of the board, which is slated for late September, said Bloch, who also is a Swiss Jewish leader.

But one of the Jewish representatives at the Bern meeting said the fund has agreed to issue checks totaling $15 million as early as next month.

The Swiss members of the seven-member committee "responded in a speedy and moral way to deal with the oldest and neediest cases," said Singer, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress.

Singer said the committee approved the payment of $60 million to 60,000 survivors in the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe, and that the first quarter would be paid during the summer.

Jewish organizations are assembling the list of those cases, said Singer, who attended the Bern meeting on behalf of WJC President Edgar Bronfman, a member of the committee.

Set up earlier this year with contributions from Switzerland's largest banks and industrial firms, the fund was seen as an effort to counter the torrent of criticism of Switzerland's handling of dormant bank accounts of Nazi victims.

The fund is currently valued at $116 million.

The Swiss National Bank has pledged an additional $70 million, but that contribution requires approval by the Swiss Parliament. The legislature is expected to take action in September.

Meanwhile, Swiss banks this week uncovered more than $7 million more in unclaimed accounts of Holocaust victims.

The Bern meeting came on the heels of a controversy surrounding a BBC documentary that claimed Switzerland turned a blind eye to trainloads of Italian Jews who were shipped through Switzerland on their way to work as slave laborers in Germany.

Thousands of Italian Jews were taken by train via the St. Gotthard pass through the Alps, according to the BBC program "Inside Story," which aired on Swiss television last week.

"The transports of forced laborers through Switzerland clearly continued with the knowledge of the government," said David Marks, associate producer of the documentary.

The program, which previously aired in the United States and Britain, based the claim partly on an interview with an unidentified Swiss woman known as "Elizabeth."

She said Jewish volunteers in Zurich were asked by the Red Cross to attend a train passing through the city's station in late 1943.

"We were told that they were Jewish people, Gypsies and others who were being transported to Germany and beyond," said Elizabeth, who was 14 at the time.

The documentary was sharply criticized by Swiss officials and historians.

"It is unlikely that Jews were transported via the Swiss Alps to the death camps," said Francois Bergier, the Swiss head of an international commission that is examining Switzerland's wartime past.

Bergier said that his commission would investigate the allegations in the documentary.

Switzerland's ambassador to the United Kingdom, Francois Nordmann, wrote in a letter of protest to John Bort, director general of the BBC, that the documentary's producers "chose to present an outrageous scenario, disseminating hatred and casting discredit on a whole country by exploiting a register of emotions, insinuations and calumnies."

Swiss Jewish leaders criticized their government's reaction to the film and urged the Bergier Commission to investigate the claims immediately.

"We should not accuse the filmmakers that they opened our eyes," said Thomas Lyssy, vice president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities.

"The Jews all over the world and, of course, in Switzerland are anxious to know if the Swiss government allowed the Nazis to transport Jews in trains via Switzerland."