Swiss stop saying sorry for Nazi gold

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The Independent Online
The last chapter of the Holocaust should not descend into wrangling over money, says Thomas Borer, head of the Swiss delegation to this week's Nazi gold conference in London. He tells Louise Jury the world should recognise what Switzerland has done to make amends.

Thomas Borer believes Switzerland deserves credit. Though slow to recognise the heat of international criticism of its war-time role as bankers to the Nazis, the Swiss have, he insists, set the pace since then in investigation and compensation.

Mr Borer hopes the 41-nation conference opening tomorrow will acknowledge their efforts. "We're always in a no-win situation. If we give out a cheque, it's too little, too late. If we publish the names of dormant account holders, people ask `Why now?' We have to be cool. But I hope we will get a fair assessment."

The Nazis poured about pounds 200m of gold into Switzerland during the Second World War. The Allies warned Berne early on that this could not have been obtained legally and must be plunder, but Switzerland thought, and continues to think, that it had to trade with the Nazis as well as the Allies because it was a neutral country.

The Swiss were shocked last year when newly-released details of this wartime trading triggered an international outcry about the morality of this neutral stance. Stung into action, Flavio Cotti, the Swiss Foreign Minister, apologised and came up with the money. Although Switzerland can afford to be generous (and did profit from the war), what it has done since the "Nazi gold" storm broke has been considerable. Two funds have been set up. The Swiss Fund for Needy Victims of the Holocaust was founded with donations from Switzerland's main banks, including the Swiss National Bank, and stands at 270 million Swiss francs (pounds 117m). The first payments went to Holocaust survivors in Latvia this month. The second, the seven billion Swiss franc (pounds 3bn) Swiss Foundation for Solidarity, will fund annual awards to all victims of poverty and catastrophe.

In addition, Switzerland has suspended its notorious bank secrecy laws to help Holocaust survivors and their families reclaim deposits which were left in Swiss banks. Until now, many were unable to make claims because the necessary documentation was destroyed in the concentration camps or lost.

"We have tried to do the right thing," Mr Borer says. But he is exasperated and somewhat fearful that the London conference will continue to make Switzerland a scapegoat while other countries escape international opprobrium.

Gold and other Nazi assets were channelled through several countries, including Portugal, Spain, Sweden and several Latin American states. There is surprise and some disappointment in Switzerland that the Swiss alone are the targets of criticism.

A report on the activities of these other countries by Stuart Eizenstat, head of the American delegation, was due last month but has not been completed in time for the conference.

Mr Borer is unwilling to make public demands on other nations but says: "Madeleine Albright [the US Secretary of State) has clearly said that we have set the pace and we are, in a way, an example."

Some Jewish organisations still believe the Swiss could do more. Mr Borer says the World Jewish Congress has asked for as much as $3bn. They will not get it.

"If we go on talking about money, the last chapter of the Holocaust is going to be about money," he says. That will do nothing to aid understanding of what happened in the war or promote links with the Jewish community. But in a gesture of good faith, he thinks Swiss banks may settle a group legal action by American Holocaust survivors against them out of court.

America is where the public image of Switzerland needs most attention. Several states, led by California, have suspended investment dealings with American subsidiaries of Swiss banks in the wake of the Nazi gold affair. Next week, Mr Borer will go to New York to try to persuade state officials to drop their boycott.

"I came to office a year ago. We made a lot of promises and we have lived up to them. If you ask if we're fast enough, nobody is ever fast enough, but we are satisfied with the progress we've made."

When 240 delegates and more journalists arrive at Lancaster House for the conference tomorrow, he will repeat this message. Yet he admits he is suspicious of the value of such a gathering. "We have to ask ourselves, What are these conferences for?"