Compassion for Switzerland

February 06, 1997|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

BROADWAY, Va. -- I wish the Swiss ambassador could have known my friend before he penned that fateful memo about being engaged in a ''war'' against American Jews over the gold of the Holocaust victims.

Now the ambassador has lost his job for putting on paper how embattled the Swiss feel upon being pressed to return this long-forgotten wealth to the heirs of the people who tried to protect their legacy from Nazi plunderers about to destroy them. If he'd known my friend, he'd have known that not all Jews are without compassion for the poor Swiss.

My friend is Mark Strauss, retired mathematician and practicing farmer in Shenandoah County, Virginia. He was not always a Virginian. During the Second World War, he was a Jewish boy in the Polish-Ukrainian town of Lvov under Nazi occupation. After surviving various horrors, he was hidden in the home of a Roman Catholic woman for the final two years of the war until the defeat of the Nazis freed him to come out of hiding and, eventually, come to the United States to make a new life.

The Holocaust that he escaped still lives in Mark, however. Several times a month he ventures out to schools to tell students about his experiences, so that they can learn some of what he discovered the hard way about the wages of hatred. And Mark also produces some extraordinary paintings, many of which grow out of his Holocaust experience, and which can be seen some days on the Mall near the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The Swiss came to Mark's mind the other day after he made an unpleasant visit to his dentist. It had been necessary for Mark to have a tooth extracted, and it turned out to be one that had long ago had a gold filling embedded in it. The dentist handed it to Mark as a souvenir, encouraging him to save it for the gold.

As a student of the Holocaust, Mark knew full well that it was JTC from just such teeth that the Nazis mined a great fortune in gold from their Jewish victims. Tooth by tooth such gold does not amount to a great deal, but if you are murdering 6 million people, and if each of them has 30 teeth or so, and even a small fraction of those teeth have gold fillings, the mining operation works out pretty well. So the Germans found.

This gold found its way to Switzerland, the special, protected country where it could be safely stored, even next to the savings of those desperate people whose teeth would become a natural resource for their murderers.

Impartial before killers and killed

The Swiss performed a noble service during those fateful years. Having transmuted their mountainous terrain into a position of neutrality while the rest of the world chose up sides, the Swiss could stand above the terrible fray and provide sanctuary for the gold of both killers and killed. By restraining the usual human impulse to differentiate between right and wrong, the Swiss were able to offer the world a place where money of all kinds could be treated with equal respect and where the sacred right of privacy would be inviolate.

Of course, after the war was over, and many of the desperate Jewish savers of Europe were in no condition to remember where the treasure of generations had been salted away, this very right of privacy helped make it more difficult for the gold in Swiss vaults and the families from which it came to be reunited. Hence the recent controversies that have sadly put the Swiss and the Jews on different sides.

By my friend Mark, with his newly-extracted gold-filled Jewish tooth in hand, thought only compassionate thoughts about the Swiss. As the controversy has heated up, he thought, one aspect of the plight of the Swiss has not gained sufficient notice.

That is that half a century has passed without there being another similar cataclysm like World War II and the Holocaust that would allow the Swiss to perform their special function. True, there's been trouble in Bosnia, but even that genocide has not given the Swiss their chance to hold the gold for ethnic cleansers and ethnically cleansed alike, as before.

Mark understood that this has been a difficult half-century for the Swiss, and he felt moved to seize his opportunity to help them out.

''Andy,'' Mark said to me on the phone that day, ''I'm going to send my tooth to Switzerland. I think they need it more than I do. It's been so long since such teeth came their way. They should know that some of us really care.''

''That's a great idea, Mark,'' I enthused. ''It would be a wonderful demonstration of good will. It's so good, in fact, that I think you should do more than just stick it in an envelope. Call in the press, Mark, so that it will not just be whoever opens the envelope who can witness your act of compassion.''

But then Mark grew shy about it. Maybe it is something about how an act of charity is changed if it becomes too public. So I told Mark, ''Don't worry. You just do your good deed. I'm a writer. Let me tell the story, and the world will know.''

Too bad this story is being told too late to save the job of the poor, embattled Swiss ambassador who was just trying to protect his beloved country from what he took to be its enemies. Sometimes, sadly, a conflict one did not seek can just strip one of one's place in the world. It's so unfair.

Andrew Bard Schmookler's latest book. ''Living Posthumously: Confronting the Loss of Vital Powers,'' has just been published.

Pub Date: 2/06/97

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