Rolf Bloch: Chocolatier who led the campaign in the 1990s to persuade Swiss banks to release savings deposited by Jews before the Holocaust

As a proud Swiss and an equally proud Jew, Bloch felt an obligation to become a mediator

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The Independent Online

Rolf Bloch, a Swiss chocolatier and Jewish community leader, played a pivotal role in the 1990s in pressing Swiss banks to release some $1.45bn of savings deposited by German and other Jews before the Holocaust. Bloch, at the time the head of the family company Chocolats Camille Bloch, helped initiate and mediate the historic process which in 1998 led Switzerland’s leading two banks, Credit Suisse and UBS, to release $1.25bn for a Holocaust Fund for victims’ families.

In 1997, the Swiss parliament also named Bloch to preside over a separate fund, the Swiss Humanitarian Fund for Needy Victims of the Holocaust/Shoa, into which Swiss banks collectively paid in around 300m Swiss francs (around $200mn at the time). It was Bloch’s role to apportion these funds to victims of the Nazis or of Swiss actions which may have cost the lives of Jews and others. These “needy” victims or their families included not only Jews but Roma gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses, homosexuals, disabled people and others who had been jailed simply for helping such groups.   

For half a century after the Second World War in which Switzerland had declared its neutrality, the Swiss people, banks and consecutive governments chose to play ostrich over the nation’s wartime role in harbouring Jewish money. The Swiss had also suffered from collective amnesia over wartime trading with Hitler and turning back train loads of desperate Jews. But it was in the mid-1990s that Switzerland’s reputation in the world reached a postwar ebb after the global media, particularly in the US, dug into Swiss banking activity before and during the war. 

As a proud Swiss and an equally proud Jew, Bloch felt an obligation to become a mediator: he had status and trust both as a leading Swiss chocolate industrialist with excellent bank contacts and as a Jewish community leader. While most Swiss Jews stuck to the low profile they had adopted during the rise of Naziism in neighbouring Germany and Austria, Bloch stepped up.

In early 1995, he pressed Switzerland’s Federal Banking Commission and the Swiss Bankers’ Association to investigate funds held between 1933, and the rise of Nazism, and the end of the war in 1945. He also called upon the World Jewish Congress to add its weight to his campaign, which they did, led by WJC president Edgar M Bronfman. Bloch’s motto was: “Justice for the Jews, fairness towards Switzerland.” With Bloch as mediator between the WJC and the two biggest Swiss banks, UBS and Credit Suisse, the banks agreed to set up a Holocaust Fund.  

The stakes were raised in 1997 and Switzerland was faced with its greatest postwar foreign affairs crisis after Christoph Meili, a 29-year-old bank guard at the Swiss Bank Corporation (SBC) in Zurich – which would merge with UBS in 1998 – turned whistleblower. At 4.30pm on 8 January 1997, Meili was checking office locks when he stumbled on two pushcarts loaded with documents labelled “to be shredded”. When he noticed that some were dated from the war years he thought it odd that historical documents were being shredded so he took them home. 

Meili later told reporters that he had recently seen the film Schindler’s List and was aware of allegations that Swiss banks may have been destroying evidence from the war and pre-war years. Although he himself was not Jewish, he handed them to a Jewish cultural group, which showed them to Bloch, who in turn passed them to the WJC. The “Meili Affair” speeded up the two big Swiss banks’ decision in 1998 to provide $1.25bn for a Holocaust fund. Meili was fired, highly criticised by the Swiss banks and many Swiss people and was later given sanctuary in the US by President Bill Clinton.

Bloch also represented Switzerland at the December 1997 London Conference on Nazi Gold, with more than 40 nations present, called by the Jewish former MP Greville Janner, organised by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and held in Lancaster House.

Rolf Alphonse Bloch was born in 1930 in the Swiss capital, Berne, and would spend much of his life in the picturesque nearby suburb of Muri on the River Aare. His father, Camille, had been an apprentice chocolatier and salesman at the big Tobler factory in Berne before setting up Chocolats Camille Bloch in 1929.

The Wall Street crash that year did not hit Switzerland as badly as the larger countries of Europe, notably Germany, and Bloch chocolate not only survived but thrived, becoming a household name at home.By the time Rolf was born,  the Nazis had occupied France, its troops controlling the French-Swiss border only seven miles from the Bloch factory at Courtelary in the Jura mountains. Although he was Swiss going back generations, he recalled being expelled from the boy scouts during the war after being snubbed by fellow scouts and leaders because he was a Jew.

Bloch graduated in law from the University of Berne before joining his father’s firm in 1954 and marrying Michèle Levy in 1961. As part of his training, he spent time in London studying cocoa prices and markets as well as a spell at an advertising agency in New York. In 1970, after the death of Camille, Rolf took over the family firm until he retired in 2005 and handed the reins to his sons Daniel and Stéphane.

The company, with Daniel Bloch as general manager, is currently the fifth biggest chocolate producer in Switzerland and the country’s only remaining family chocolate firm. It is probably best-known for its Ragusa and Torino bars, as well as its chocolates filled with fruit brandies such as kirsch (cherry), Cointreau or Williams (pear brandy). Switzerland’s Alpine ski racer Lara Gut is the company’s advertising face. 

Bloch was a past president of the Swiss-Israeli Chamber of Commerce, of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities and vice-president of the European Council of Jewish Communities.

Rolf Alphonse Bloch, lawyer, mediator, community leader, chocolatier and businessman: born Berne 24 June 1930; married 1961 Michèle Levy (one daughter, two sons); died Berne 27 May 2015.