Swiss National Bank officials knew some gold was Nazi loot Swiss report confirms central bank got gold from Holocaust victims

May 26, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ZURICH, Switzerland -- A long-awaited Swiss report about wartime dealings in Nazi gold concluded that Swiss National Bank officials knew that some gold sent to Switzerland had been looted from occupied areas and confirmed allegations that the gold included some stolen from Holocaust victims.

The report, commissioned by the Swiss government and issued yesterday by an international panel of historians, said Swiss bank officials turned a blind eye toward the origins of much of the gold, which included jewelry and coins belonging to Jews sent to concentration camps and death.

The head of the panel, Jean-Francois Bergier, criticized wartime officials of the Swiss National Bank for following an "ethic of the least effort" to trace the origins of the gold, even though starting in 1941 they "became increasingly aware that Jews and other persecuted groups were being robbed."

"And in 1943, at the latest, the SNB had knowledge of the systematic extermination of victims of the Nazi regime," the report said. "Nonetheless, the SNB decision makers neglected taking measures to distinguish looted gold from other gold holdings of the Reichsbank."

Value of gold

Overall, the report estimated that Switzerland's central bank had bought gold worth $280 million in wartime dollars from the Nazis -- or more than $2.5 billion at today's prices. While not providing a full estimate of the gold, the report said 119.5 kilograms, or $135,000 in wartime dollars, was sent to Swiss banks, or more than $1.2 million at today's prices.

Although the report held no surprises, it fueled rancor between Swiss officials and American Jewish groups that have been pressing Switzerland to pay into a global settlement to atone for the wartime trade and to compensate Holocaust survivors and the heirs of Holocaust victims.

The Swiss National Bank has so far refused to join the country's commercial banks in negotiating a settlement with Jewish groups. A senior government official, Thomas Borer, who heads the Swiss government task force on the topic, said the government still "won't take part in any settlement that involved taxpayers' money."

"The report says clearly the Swiss government and the Swiss National Bank did not know that it was victims' gold," Borer said in an interview yesterday. "No one could know because the gold was melted into normal ingots."

'A moral stain'

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, the leading voice for global reparations, said by telephone: "They know now. It's a moral stain on Switzerland if they create a commission and don't act on its conclusions."

Borer said there was nothing in the report that warranted reopening of the 1946 Washington agreement under which Switzerland turned over some gold obtained during the war. The Federal Council, Switzerland's governing body, issued a statement yesterday ruling out revisiting the 1946 accord on grounds that "the Allies were informed extensively from the very beginning" on the gold transactions.

Urging the Swiss to make restitution for victims' gold, Steinberg vTC said, "Switzerland shouldn't act dishonorably just because the Allies did 50 years ago."

The report said that SNB officials were so uneasy about the prospect of wartime trafficking in looted gold that they considered melting it down to disguise its origin. That idea was later abandoned as "impractical," according to the 190-page report.

Pub Date: 5/26/98

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