The Swiss government yesterday invited the World Jewish Congress to Switzerland next week to help administer and distribute a fund set up for aged Holocaust survivors.
It was the first gesture by the Swiss, under increasing pressure to compensate Holocaust victims for looted World War II assets, to reach out to Jewish groups.
Ambassador Alfred Defago, the Swiss consul general in New York, offered the invitation at a hearing conducted by the state Assembly’s Standing Committee on Banks at the New York Bar Association in Manhattan.
The hearing was held to examine how the state can help heirs of victims reclaim assets deposited in Swiss banks during the war.
Israel Singer, secretary general of the Jewish Congress, accepted the invitation and called it a “turning point” as he addressed the hearing, led by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Assemblywoman Aurelia Greene (D-Bronx), the committee’s chairwoman.
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said the invitation moves the two sides “from confrontation to cooperation.”
“The trouble is that the investigation into the looted assets can take many, many years, and the survivors are aged,” Steinberg said. “So that their immediate desperate needs can be taken care of, this fund has been established.”
Switzerland has been weathering accusations from Jewish groups for 18 months that the nation was more than a neutral bystander during the war and that its banks hoarded up to $7 billion left in the country for safekeeping by families who later died in Nazi concentration camps.
The Swiss government established a fund — which now stands at $71 million but is expected to grow as banks, industries and individuals contribute to it — to meet the needs of elderly Holocaust survivors and heirs of Nazi victims.
American and Swiss officials will attend a meeting of the Jewish Congress today to discuss the disbursement of the fund.
Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), who has been pressuring the Swiss about the assets, has more recently softened his stance after, for instance, accusing Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti of “arrogance and contempt for history” for announcing that the Swiss government would administer the fund.
Yesterday, D’Amato said he is reassured that Switzerland will do the right thing about the fund, especially now that Jewish groups will be involved.