The Swiss/Nazi Connection
Edgar Bronfman remembers that he wasn't much more than ten years old when he first heard whispered conversations in his family's baronial estate in Montreal between his father and visitors who spoke with hushed foreign accents and ragged bursts of emotion. "All the Jews in the village were lined up and shot... A child saw them digging their own graves...' That's what they were telling my father in 1939. And if I, a ten year-old boy, knew this, how come the rest of the world didn't know?"
For much of the last two decades, Bronfman, as president of the World Jewish Congress, has seen to it that the world does know and never forgets the events of modern history's darkest decade. More controversially, he has demanded that the assets of those who perished be returned to their heirs. With the same vengeance that Simon Weisenthal hunts down Nazi criminals, Bronfman pursues reparations for the Nazi victims - their property, their art, and most significantly,, their money in Swiss bank accounts. His efforts over the last year have utterly unhinged Switzerland's equanimity, have severely shaken its stated position of neutrality, and threaten to undo the secrecy laws that are the bedrock of its banking system, and consequently, its wealth. And the Swiss are not the only ones who are trembling. Investigators are just beginning to unearth World War II documents tracking the trail of the Gestapo's loot - from Swiss banks to Latin America. Before it is all over, many nations, including the United States, are likely to be implicated - bringing grief and shame to aging statesmen. "This is the last chapter of the Holocaust," Edgar Bronfman says pitilessly, "and it must be written correctly."
In September 1995, Bronfman and his aides met in Bern with Kaspar Villiger, then President of Switzerland, and the board of the Swiss Bankers' Association to discuss the assets of Holocaust victims in Swiss accounts. Having successfully evaded and denied their ties to the Third Reich for decades, the Swiss once again sought to defer their hour of reckoning. They offered part of the $32 million they had in unclaimed accounts to settle all outstanding claims. "They didn't understand that what we want is a proper accounting, not a payoff," said an indignant Bronfman.
Less than two years into Bronfman's crusade, four U.S. investigations have been launched, including those by Alfonse D'Amato's Senate Banking Committee and its counterpart in the House, chaired by Iowa congressman Jim Leach. The Independent Committee of Eminent Persons, headed by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, has retained three accounting firms which have been granted free rein to inspect all dormant Swiss bank accounts opened between 1934 and 1946, assisted by an unprecedented suspension of the Swiss secrecy laws and paid for by the Swiss Bankers' Association. President Clinton has appointed Under Secretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat as the White House's point man to supervise yet another inquiry.
Whatever the crimes of the wartime Swiss prove to be, the charges alone, bolstered by the gut-wrenching claims of survivors and recently declassified documents in the National Archives in Washington - have been a colossal public relations nightmare.. And they are keenly aware that matters could get worse, progressing from bad press to long term damage to the banks. More than 10,000 survivors or their heirs have filed suits against the banks, and Bronfman has not ruled out calling for an international boycott of the banks.
A palpable low grade panic suffuses the normally imperturbable Swiss. After a series of blunders and denials by the banks, the Swiss Parliament has approved legislation forcing them into action - iniating their own wide-ranging Truth Commission investigation. "Nothing less than our reputation as an honorable country and a reliable friend is at stake," intoned a humbled Ambassador Thomas Borer, chief of the Swiss Task Force on Assets of Nazi Victims, before the House Banking Committee in Washington last December. Borer implored his audience to remember that Switzerland is "the land of the Red Cross, the Geneva Convention, and the United Nations." He hastened to add that it was in Switzerland, too, where Theodore Herzl held the first Zionist World Congress.
"No one, but Edgar Bronfman could have brought us to this point," says Israel Singer, W.J.C.'s secretary-general and Bronfman's guru in what Singer refers to as "the Jew business." With a reported personal fortune of nearly $3 billion and easy entry into the highest reaches of power, from Boris Yeltsin to Fidel Castro to the Pope. Bronfman is a rainmaker or herculean status. "Edgar Bronfman has even forged a marriage between Bill Clinton and Alfonse D'Amato," says the W.J.C.'s executive director, Elan Steinberg, "the odd couple of politics."
Bronfman is chairman of the board of the $22 billion Seagrams Company Ltd., which his father, Sam Bronfman, built from scratch, and which is run by his 41-year-old son, Edgar junior. The Seagram empire includes 80 percent of Universal Studios, Inc., Tropicana Dole Beverages, Martell and Co., G.H. Mumm & Cie, and 15 percent of Time Warner. Because Sam Bronfman was phobic about heights, he chose the fifth floor of the landmark Seagram Building on Park Avenue for his office, and his son remains there today. It is preternaturally still and cheerless floor, brightened only by a Fernand Leger painting and tapestries designed by Picasso.
Edgar Bronfman is a broad, trim man of gruff earnestness, with dramatic bushy eyebrows slashed diagonally over his blue eyes. There is a forbidding, impatient quality about him and some resemblance to the 40s movie actor, Joseph Cotten. His father, a Russian-born Canadian distiller who made his fortune during Prohibition, was a Jewish Joe Kennedy. Unlike Kennedy, however, Sam Bronfman was truly a family man, and a prodigious philanthropist. He was also a lifelong Zionist. Edgar Bronfman says it was only after his father's death in 1971 that he developed an interest in his faith. "It's one of the great regrets of my life that I didn't raise my children in a religious home," he says.
'Look. I was born rich and didn't experience much anti-Semitism except for some incidents at prep school," Bronfman explains. "But when I see Jews, it shocks me. They were treated terribly. There has been no justice." Today, Bronfman, relishes his role as what some have come to think of as the Jewish Pope. He devotes, he says, "about 40 percent of my time to W.J.C. matters," adding that he thinks it has made him, if not a better man, a better executive. "I run Seagram like a dictator. I talk. I don't listen," he says. "With W.J.C., I listen. W.J.C. is a democracy. Seagram is not." An associate of Bronfman's comments that while his boss is "entirely capable of Ceaucescu bouts of behavior [a reference to the Romanian dictator] everything he does for W.J.C. is pro bono." He has bankrolled much of its funding, and spent "in the seven figures," pursuing restitution for Holocaust victims. In a recent mailing to WJC members, Bronfman pledged to personally match all contributions up to $25,000.
Unlike the late Armand Hammer, who freely capitalized on his diplomatic endeavors to augment his companies' profits, Bronfman, by all reports, has never tried to enrich himself from W.J.C. work. "There is no business upside for him in, say, pleading dissident or Jewish rights to the Russians," says Israel Singer Some feel Bronfman brings too much of the hardball ethos of Wall Street politics to issues like his successful campaign to topple Kurt Waldheim, the former U.N. secretary-general and Austrian President, for his participation in war crimes. Some prominent Jewish leaders, including former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, and Simon Weisenthal, opposed Bronfman's assault on Waldheim, feeling that it risked fomenting more anti-Semitism. "Jews don't create anti-Semitism," retorted Bronfman. "Anti-Semites creates anti-Semitism." Bronfman supporters point out that Weisenthal was reluctant to go after Waldheim "out of embarrassment," because Weisenthal lives and works in Vienna. ("If you want to study malaria, you go to where the mosquitoes live" is Weisenthal's ready response.)
The Waldheim case drew the line in the sand between two camps of Jews. European Jews, who have suffered more and who cope with a more active strain of anti-Semitism, tend to favor low-key, back-channel negotiations. American Jews are more hard-line, and Bronfman exhibits what his critics carp is more the marksmanship of a cowboy than the maneuvers of a diplomat. When Bronfman took over the presidency of the W.J.C. from its charismatic founder Nahum Goldmann, in 1981, he was determined to transform the organization from a philanthropy with marginal influence into a player on the world stage. "I adored [Goldmann] and respected him deeply, but we differed in our approaches," Bronfman writes in his memoir, The Making of a Jew. "My view is that timidity toward anti-Semitism encourages anti-Semitism," he says.
When Waldheim threatened to sue Bronfman for defamation, Bronfman called his bluff. The Austrian government, fearful perhaps of a Nuremberg Trial rerun, compelled Waldheim to drop the suit. Bronfman succeeded in terminating Waldheim's career in disgrace, even lobbying to have him barred from visiting the United States. It was a stunning victory, it widened the breach between Bronfman's W.J.C. and Wiesenthal's devotees. When I asked the 88-year-old Weisenthal what his feelings were regarding the Swiss scandal, he responded somewhat testily through his secretary, "I am interested in bringing to justice those who took the lives of Jews, not those who took their assets."
The irony of one of the world's wealthiest men pursuing the funds of Holocaust victims has not gone without comment. Some have mumbled that they fear it will raise the time worn anti-Semitic canard about Jews and money, and there is evidence that it has. A crucial part of Bronfman's confidence and success is due to the fact that Jews are thriving in America as never before. In current American politics, restitution for Holocaust victims is a win-win issue, and no one is more keenly aware of this than Senator D'Amato, whose New York constituency includes the largest Jewish population in the Western Hemisphere. Early in his mission, Bronfman shrewdly tapped D'Amato, the chairman of the powerful Senate Banking Committee. With his poll numbers in the basement following his fizzled Whitewater hearings and an election looming less than two years away, D'Amato has seized on the restitution issue. "People can call me political- whatever!" he tells me, "but I am doing the right, the just thing."
D'Amato, trying to capture the magnitude of missing wealth at stake, begins a discombobulated reminiscence about children and memory. An, the pit bull of the Beltway has put the fear of God into the Swiss, fueling all manner of conspiracy theories. At three congressional hearings, D'Amato gave operatic performances-cajoling, bullying, and flatly insulting the Swiss. "Thank god he isn't Jewish," says one Bronfman aide, "or he'd trigger a whole new pogrom." D'Amato's investigators have unearthed two tons of declassified documents in the National Archives, producing, on average, one bombshell headline per week. Some, however, turned out to be duds. Perhaps the biggest blooper was an announcement last March that a Swiss company, the Societe Generale de Surveillance, had improperly held Jewish funds. In fact, the Societe is an old, esteemed company formerly owned and operated by Jews. But it is outrage, not facts, at which D'Amato excels, and Nazi collaborators may be the first target truly worthy of his savagery.
In view of the enormous sums bandied about in the press, one might imagine that Auschwitz was a mass grave of multi-millionaires. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the six million murdered Jews were ordinary citizens of limited or modest means. And those with wealth to shelter usually hid it in a hole in the ground or in a wall in their house, not in Swiss banks. However, those with the means and wherewithal certainly took advantage of what they believed was the most secure banking system in the world. Of the more than 10,000 who have filed suits against Swiss banks, only a fraction personally made the deposits themselves. Jacob Friedman was one of them.
At 75, Friedman is still handsome, his blue eyes set off by wavy white hair. Sitting with his wife, Margarita, and their son, Robert, at the dining-room table in his Brooklyn home, he wears a navy-blue suit and vest and a dark yarmulke. His hands are folded and rest upon the polished table. His voice is a low whisper. "A book had come out," he says. "It was called Mein Kampf, and people said that if certain things came to pass they would try to take the money and property of Jews away from them. I know that was part of my father's thinking." However, a mass pogrom in the middle of the 20th century, Marton Friedman assumed, was inconceivable.
Jacob recalls in minute detail the seven arduous trips he made to Zurich, Switzerland, as a teenager in 1937 and 1938. Always he traveled by rail, leaving Timisoara, Romania, in the morning and arriving one and a half days later in Zurich. Like thousands of Europeans, Friedman's father was seeking security for his savings away from the inflationary instability that plagued much of the Continent. Penalties for transferring currency out of the country were stiff. In Romania, one could face 10 years in prison: in Germany, during the war, death. Cognizant of the dangers involved, the Swiss banks offered a seemingly perfect solution: numbered accounts.
Every two or three months, young Jacob would make the journey, carrying an envelope containing 22,500 Swiss francs, the equivalent of about $58,000 today. On the front of the envelope was a neatly printed numbers - the sole identification of the depositor. From the Zurich train station, Friedman took the tram to 60 Anwand Strasse, the home of a close friend of his father's, Chiel Riger, Friedman's father knew that his son would be well cared for, and that Riger would see to it that he attended prayers at the synagogue across the street. Previously, Jacob's father, a successful commodities broker, had made one trip to the banks himself. But in 1936, amid a rising tide of Swiss xenophobia and anti-Semitism, the elder Friedman, a bearded Hassid, had been detained and expelled by the Swiss police. In time, he enlisted his eldest son, a 17-year-old partial to modern dress.
Upon his arrival, Jacob would take his envelope and deposit it in one of three banks in Zurich. In all, he says, he made eight deposits: three at the Schweizerische Bankgellschaft (Union Bank of Switzerland); one at Wohl und Landau Bank; and three at the Schweizerischer Bankverein (The Swiss Bank Corporation), as well as one at its branch in Le Locle. Receipts were provided to Riger, and in the evening he and Jacob's father would speak by phone and confirm the transaction.
I recently retraced Friedman's footsteps in Zurich, in part because Swiss officials have disputed many of the claims. On a rainy day last November, I found the apartment building at 60 Anwand Strasse, but I couldn't locate the synagogue. I soon saw two Hasidim step out of a car and walk up the street. Yes, they said, they were on their way to the synagogue, pointing to an unmarked building behind us. But, no, they didn't know a Friedman or a Riger. One of them disappeared inside, and moments later a man in his 70s came out. Yes, he had known Riger, he said, "a very good man - but he's long gone now, maybe since 1955. Even his son is dead now."
Only once, in 1938, was Jacob Friedman stopped by the Swiss police. "They asked me where I was going, and I told them, and they returned my passport," he says, but they offered him a warning. "They told me. `Don't go through Germany again. If you do, it may be your last trip.'" In 1939, Friedman fled to Budapest to avoid the draft in Romania, but he returned in 1940 to visit his family. Discovered by the police, he was taken to the station house, beaten, and "kicked out" of the country. He never saw his family again. "I know the exact day they were taken to Auschwitz," he says, his gaze fixing on the table. "It was the first day of Shavuot, May 28, 1944."
His wife finishes their story. Margita Friedman rapturously describes the world of her childhood - the extinct world of the Hungarian Jewish intelligentsia. "There was nothing like it anywhere. Such a cultivated community. More so than Paris or Prague," she says. After the Nazis took Budapest and corralled its Jews into a ghetto, her brother's best friend offered his Aryan identity card to Margita and Jacob. "He felt sorry for us," Margita recounts. "But I couldn't save my mother," she says, "My mother - only 44 years old. My father, 47. I don't understand why. We never bothered anyone. We never broke the law." From March to July 1994, 430,000 Hungarian Jews were efficiently dispatched to their death, Margita's family amongst them. "They knew how to do it by then - one, two, three," Jacob Friedman says quietly, bitterly. "They learned well from their Polish experience," he adds, referring to the slaughter of the three million Jews of Poland.
In 1970 the Friedmans attempted to recover Marton Friedman's savings from the various Swiss Banks. Deposits of 200,000 Swiss francs would today, with interest, be worth $1,000,000. However, the Friedmans were told that without the account numbers they would be unable to secure their funds. "I never cared about the money," Margita Friedman says. "We have lost everything that we loved. But we have survived, and now there are grandchildren. And they should have that money. Not the Swiss." Hearing that the Swiss have asked for up to five years to complete their inquiry, Jacob reacts scornfully. "They're waiting for us to die," he says. "In five, ten years we will all be dead, and they know this." Holocaust survivors are an endangered species. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, there were 50,000 living in the Untied States in 1996.
'The truth is no one cared about the Jews. In 1940, the Jews had no powerful lobbies, no state of Israel. We were powerless," says Daniel Guggenheim, brushing back his thick dark hair with his hand. We are sitting in his decorous law offices on the Rue de Granges, a narrow cobblestone stretch of 18th-century buildings in the old Town of Geneva. "It was terrible here for Jews until late into the last century," explains Guggenheim, a third cousin of the flamboyant art maven Peggy Guggenheim. Swiss Jews could not vote, be elected to public office, or live where they chose to until 1866. "My great-grandfather paid for our cousins to go to the United States because things were so bad here."
Daniel Guggenheim's own family did not flee Switzerland during the war, feeling as strongly tied to their Swiss roots as to their Jewish faith. Daniel was born in Geneva in 1938, two years after Nahum Goldmann - who later became a Swiss citizen - founded the World Jewish Congress there. "Goldmann was from a Polish shtetl, but he had a good German education and was a great womanizer," remarks and amused Guggenheim. "My father was a great admirer of his." Daniel's father, Paul Guggenheim, an international lawyer, was among the first to notify Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the Holocaust. "Carl Burckhardt, [the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross at the end of the war] told my father what was happening to the Jews. My father filed an affidavit with the U.S. consul in Geneva, who communicated it to Roosevelt, who ignored it." Guggenheim has his own theory about the refusal of the U.S. to act on behalf of the Jews, the blame for which is usually attributed to a handful of anti-Semitic advisors close to F.D.R. "Jimmy Roosevelt, [F.D.R.'s son] was a client of mine," says Guggenheim. "Jimmy said it was only his mother who had any real feeling for the plight of the Jews."
After the war, Paul Guggenheim campaigned to have the Swiss banks release the funds of Holocaust victims. "My father went to the Swiss Justice Department in the mid-50s asking them to open the accounts, which they did in 1962," he says. The investigators found 9.5 million Swiss francs - then the equivalent of $2.2 million. Why only such a small amount? "Because the banks were investigating themselves," he says with a smile. "That's the difference between then and now." Guggenheim speaks of his wife, whose parents are survivors of Auschwitz, where they watched the demonic Dr. Mengele decide who would live and who would die. "My mother-in-law tells me things that are," he pauses, reaching for the right word, "unspeakable. People think that the Holocaust devastated just one generation. But it effects many generations. It doesn't go away." Guggenheim questions Bronfman's strategy, and voices his irritation with D'Amato's stridency and blunders. "We must be fair. There were many courageous people here," he says, reminding me that 25,000 Jews found sanctuary in Switzerland during the war. "My father always said it's easier to do the right thing today than it was in 1939. American Jews have a bad conscience because they did nothing for their European brethren," he says, and admits to misgivings about the entire process of rehashing Swiss guilt. "I don't think that the future of the Jewish world depends upon this. It depends upon peace in Israel. It's like the Waldheim matter," says Guggenheim, who came down on Weisenthal's side. "You don't use political power to change a conscience. You use it to change laws."
Like Guggenheim, Rolf Bloch is among the 18,000 Swiss Jews who survived the war, "through no merit of my own," he says. Today he is the president of the Federation of the Swiss-Jewish Communities as well as of Camille Bloch Chocolates, the company his father founded. A kindly, portly man, he shares the Swiss partiality for understatement. "My family has only lived in Switzerland for the last 150 years," he says, earnestly. "The feeling among Swiss Jews for many years was to be quiet. We learned the hard way that silence didn't work, that we must speak up." From the balcony in the magnificent 19th-century Swiss Parliament building, Bloch observes those sessions that deal with Jewish issues, peering down on legislators like their conscience.
"Most Swiss were anti-Nazi during the war, but that doesn't mean they were pro-Jewish," says Bloch, adding that the current furor has raised the hackles of many Swiss, "reviving Jewish conspiracy theories . . . The Swiss are not masochists. They are being attacked everyday, and they don't like it." At the House hearings, Bloch warned investigators not to produce single documents out of context," and urged them not to abuse "the goodwill of the Swiss."Nevertheless, he offers a chilling primer on the wartime complicity of the Swiss. "We know that Swiss law firms approached wealthy Jews and offered to buy freedom for their relatives stuck in occupied countries like Austria," he says.
Such was the case of Henry Lowinger, a Viennese businessman who was arrested soon after the invasion of Austria. According to a declassified State Department memo from May 1945: After more than two and one half years of imprisonment and pressure . . . he agreed to transfer to the Nazis all of the assets which he had, including his stock holdings of his Swiss holding company, and also to withdraw his Swiss franc deposits and to pay them over in cash in exchange for his freedom. Two Nazi lawyers... together with a dozen or more Gestapo agents, brought Lowinger and his wife to the Swiss frontier... There he was met by his Swiss lawyer. Lowinger signed the necessary documents, and had his Swiss lawyer turn over the... cash to the Nazis, after which he walked across the Swiss border, penniless but alive. "We also know that the Nazis would torture Jews they had captured and force them to sign over power of attorney to them to empty their Swiss bank accounts," says Bloch. "Now, some Swiss bankers would look at these German power of attorneys very suspiciously and not release the funds but many banks did." And what happened to the Jews after signing over their assets? I ask. "Some were killed - maybe most of them," he says. "We do not know."
Alice Fisher believes that her father was killed in this way. A child of privilege, Fisher enjoyed an idyllic upbringing on a bucolic estate in Czechoslovakia, surrounded by fine art. Her rhapsodic world was shattered forever on March 19, 1939, with the Nazi conquest of her country. Soon Jews were evicted from their homes and herded into a grimy, overcrowded ghetto. "My father paid a lot of money to have me smuggled out of the ghetto... Three days after I was smuggled out, my family was taken to Auschwitz," Fisher told the House Banking Committee in her crisp, accented English. "I learned later that just before deportation my father was arrested, interrogated, and tortured by the Nazis because they knew that he was a very wealthy man. He was beaten terribly so he would tell them where he put the family money. They must have heard about my father's many trips to Switzerland."
Fisher, a school teacher, testified that her father had confided that he had put the family's savings, jewelry, and her dowry in Swiss banks to keep them secure until after the war. Fisher also said that she learned that her mother had been among the fortunate ones in Auschwitz to be selected for work duty, but she was unwilling to leave her weeping nine- year-old-son. "She didn't want him to die alone, and she joined him in the gas showers," recounted Fisher, the sole survivor of her family. "I have refused to take any German compensation," she said, referring to the restitution payments available to survivors. "I did not want their money, but this is my money, and the Swiss banks have no right to withhold it from me." After the war, the English and the French banks took out newspaper ads with the names of unclaimed accounts of Jews," remembers Estelle Sapir, the daughter of a prominent Polish banker. "We got all our money back from the banks in Paris and London." Sapir, who escaped from a SS camp near Marseilles and survived the war with the help of the French Resistance, made two trips to Switzerland, hoping to free her father's funds there. At the Credit Suisse in Geneva in 1946, she saw her father's file on the desk of the bank officer handling her claim. "They said I had to have a death certificate," she says. She returned to Paris empty-handed. In 1957 she went to Basel with papers of her father's Swiss accounts. They weren't good enough. Only a death certificate would do. "I screamed, `who will give me this death certificate? Himmler? Hitler?' They didn't try to comfort me. Nothing." Today, Sapir lives in a single, cramped room with a shared bathroom in a boarding house in Belle Harbor, Queens.
Document after document bolsters the contention that the Swiss, more often than not, worked hand in hand with the Germans; their famed neutrality was as flexible and improvised as circumstances warranted. "They acted as the total ally of the Third Reich," says Edgar Bronfman flatly. According to the State Department's Lowinger memo:
The Germans managed to place French-speaking ardent Nazis in the leading Swiss banks, with the result that during the course of the war the Swiss secrecy law worked only against the Allies and not against the Axis.... the Gestapo knew exactly how much Lowinger had on deposit and where it was held, and told him so shortly after he was imprisoned.
The Swiss have put forth the argument - not without merit - that their wartime options were limited, surrounded as they were by Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied countries. However, a free, stable Swiss franc was crucial to the survival of the Third Reich in the world market, where the deutsche mark was unacceptable, and would have plunged in value had the Germans invaded. Most historians agree that there was no need for Hitler to seize Switzerland - he already had it, or at least what he wanted, virtual free rein with its rail system and banks. On May 7, 1995, Swiss president Villiger offered a public apology for the wartime actions of his country. For it was the Swiss, not the Germans, who in 1938 came up with the idea that the passports of Austrian and German Jews should be stamped with a large red J so that they should be easily identified by the Swiss police. Consequently, an estimated 33,000 fleeing Jews were refused entry into Switzerland, which led to the death of most of them. Additionally, the Swiss police turned over many Jews seeking asylum to the Gestapo. The Swiss Railway police routinely handed Jews and escaped Allied prisoners of war over to the SS.
Still, it is the postwar actions of the Swiss that have generated the outrage. Previously classified army intelligence memos released last December reveal that in 1947 and 1948 Swiss officials were offering deluxe escape packages to desperate Nazi tycoons for as much as 200,000 Swiss francs (the equivalent of $324,000 today). The cost included a passport, a ticket on Swissair, KLM or Air France, and a residence document to the Nazi haven of choice, usually Argentina or Brazil. Some Swiss bankers - like a shadow government - even offered to transfer the funds of their Nazi clients to South America in diplomatic pouches. The memos leave no doubt that significant sums of Gestapo plunder were shipped during and after the war to Buenos Aires, the Berlin of the Americas, where Juan and Eva Peron saw to it that they were reunited with their unlawful owners- when not gifted to themselves. And the bad news keeps getting worse for the Swiss. Several art auctions held in Lucerne during the 1950s are said to have liquidated Nazi-confiscated art. Throughout the war, U.S. Office of Secret Service agents tracked a massive flow into Switzerland of so-called degenerate art, which included works by Matisse and Renoir, under the auspices of Herman Goering. In 1945, the then head of the Metropolitan Museum put the value of stolen Nazi art found in Switzerland at a staggering $2 billion to $2.5 billion.
A spectacular blunder was made in 1949 when the Swiss decided to return 1.6 million in assets of deceased or heir-less Polish nationals - the majority of whom were presumed to be Jewish - to the Communist government of Poland. Adding insult to injury, some have charged that a portion of the money in question was then used to settle claims by Swiss citizens against Poland for nationalization of their properties. "It was pragmatic," says Rolf Bloch, "but not moral." A few years later, the banks made a similar deal with Hungary, turning over $325,000 from the accounts of deceased Jews to the Hungarian government. Most damaging, the deals prove that the banks violated their own sacrosanct secrecy laws by weeding out the accounts of individuals with Jewish names. "Secrecy laws for whom?" scoffs Bronfman. "How come they knew which accounts to empty and turn over?"
Even before the current scandal ignited, Jean Ziegler, a controversial Socialist member of the Swiss Parliament, was the nemesis of the Swiss Bankers' Association. "The basis of our wealth was Na'zi gold," Ziegler says. "We were a poor country before the War, and today we are the second richest country in the world. Remember, it was Walther Funk, Germany's economic minister, who said at Nuremberg that 'without the Swiss, we couldn't have lasted two months." State Department reports from 1945 corroborate that gold deposits in Switzerland doubled between 1939 and 1945, the direct result of transfers from Germany.
In mid-January, D'Amato's office released confidential O.S.S. dispatches revealing that between 1943 and 1944 the Swiss transported 280 truckloads of gold from Bern to Portugal and Spain on orders from Berlin. The shipments, estimated at from $250 million to $500 million then, and valued at from $2 billion to $5 billion today, would seem to prove incontrovertibly that the Swiss were fencing and laundering for the Nazis.
Ziegler also claims that much of the Nazis' loot poured into Switzerland after 1944. On August 10 of that year SS leaders met in Strasbourg with German industrialists and Swiss bankers to discuss how to resurrect Germany as a Fourth Reich, and how to shield their assets from the Allies. "Himmler hoped to get rid of Hitler, make peace with the Wes, and fight Russia," says Ziegler. The eminent Swiss-Jewish historian Jacques Picard says that there was no momentum for any investigation until D'Amato started producing smoking guns. "The banks are convinced that the American banks are behind him," he says, "and are using this as an excuse to push them out of business." There is concern that the flames of this scandal could ignite an even larger conflagration. After all, Switzerland has been a haven for the funds of all manner of international scalawags - arms dealers, drug traffickers, terrorists and fugitive tycoons such as Marc Rich, Bernie Cornfeld, Robert Vesco. "The legacy of the Nazi accounts," says Picard with a droll smile, "is the drug cartel accounts."
Verena Grendelmeier is a slim, striking woman of 58 with bobbed white hair. A former actress and theater director, she is now the most famous member of the Swiss Parliament. In 1995, Grendelmeier proposed the legislation that obliged the banks to scour their accounts for the assets of Jewish war victims. "I like to say that I threw a little stone and a big wall came down," she tells me in her modest hilltop apartment in a Zurich apartment. "The fact that we have been attacked for months," she says, "has people astonished. From chocolate and watches, suddenly we are a negative." She pauses adding, "Our neutrality may have been a myth."
Months after her speech on the floor of the Parliament, U.S. investigators found a State Department memo entitled "List of Swiss Lawyers in Zurich Said to Be Hiding German Assets," dated May 22, 1946 and stamped SECRET. On the list were the names of Grendelmeier's father, who died in 1983, and his law partner. Grendelmeier accepted this news stoically at first, but by the time I met with her, she was voicing her doubts. After all, she told me, her father, Alois Grendelmeier, who was also a member of Parliament, was well known for his anti-Nazi sentiments and his support of the 1962 legislation. He had begun his career partnered with a left-wing Jewish lawyer and had made his name in Parliament campaigning for women's suffrage (which didn't come to Switzerland until 1971). Grendelmeier says she really began to have second thoughts when she was informed of another report. "It was a hit list of whom the Nazis would kill if they took power," she says, "and both my parents were on that list." I asked Rolf Bloch, who knew Alois Grendelmeier, what he made of the imbroglio. I ask Rolf Bloch, who knew Alois Grendelmeier, if he believes that he aided the Germans. "No, not at all," Bloch says. "He wasn't a Nazi."
Switzerland during and after the war was a bit like a Graham Greene novel, swarming with spies for the Allies, the Germans, and the Russians as well as with double agents and disinformation experts. Bloch directs my attention to two other names on the on the list: "These are Jewish names, without question," he says dryly, "and I find it difficult to believe that they were working with the Nazis."In the early days of the scandal, the Swiss did everything possible to make matters worse for themselves by evading, fudging, stonewalling, and then finally relenting. The case of restoring Polish victims' assets to Poland's Communist government is a good example. According to the intrepid D'Amato investigator Gregg Rickman, "First they denied it entirely. A day later they admitted there might have been a treaty or a secret protocol, but that the Swiss never benefited from it. A week later they confirmed it, which proves they broke their own secrecy laws. And they have never turned over the lists of accounts to either Poland or Hungary or anyone else. We asked them for it in November." The Polish list was finally turned over on January 20.
Some officials have suggested that there may be as much as $7 billion in unclaimed assets and Nazi plunder, a figure the Swiss dismiss out of hand. However, according to historians Peter Hug and Marc Perrenoud, who were retained by the Swiss government to investigate the banks, the Swiss may be guilty of criminal offenses in concealing the accounts and preventing heirs from gaining access to them.
On November 12, 1996, the ombudsman for the Swiss Banks, Hanspeter Haeni, released his findings that only a meager $9,000 had turned up in his limited, preliminary search of the banks. Outrage was swift and furious. Elan Steinberg of the W.J.C. dismissed Haeni as "a photocopy service," a blind servant of the Swiss Bankers' Association. I visited the beleaguered Haeni in his office in downtown Zurich and found him to be alternately bitter, empathetic, and defensive. He said that some of the claims filed with his office are credible, but others, he believes, are "invented." Haeni made no secret of his irritation with Bronfman and the W.J.C., saying that he felt "they were more interested in politics" than resolving the problem. Most unsettling is the fact that Haeni seems to have doubts about the merits of the undertaking he has been entrusted with. "And what will we learn from this?" he asks bitterly. "We will never know what made them do what they did. We can't. And have we really learned anything 50 years later? I don't think so... Consider Bosnia, Rwanda, China!... In 50 years, what will others say of us?"
The most stunning revelation of the Swiss scandal has been the awesome systemic depth and breadth of the Nazis' plunder. "The greatest murderers in history," says Elan Steinberg, "were also its greatest thieves." The trove of declassified documents in the National Archives utterly debunks the myth that the Nazis were disciplined, incorruptible warriors motivated by a delusional ideology. Most telling was the capriciousness with which Hitler invoked his Aryan litmus test. Unwilling to lose some of the military's best and brightest, Hitler sanctioned the presence of more than 1,200 Jews in the German Army. The documents make breathtakingly clear that plunder and conquest were the only two inviolable principles of the Third Reich, and suggest that Hitler's demented master-race theory was merely cynical propaganda to legitimize his insatiable larceny.One of the first order of business for the invading Nazi army in each conquered European capital was a raid on the national treasury. The contents of museums were also often pilfered, and the homes and wealth of Jews were confiscated. By 1944 the Germans had emptied out, not counting Vichy France, eight national treasures - in Albania, Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, and Yugoslavia - the greatest robbery in the history of the world.
Even as the Allies firebombed Germany, the Nazis were removing their plunder from the Reichsbank and burying it in dozens of mines throughout the country, in the vain belief that they would see it again once they had negotiated a truce with the Allies. In the Merkers potassium mine alone, $241 million worth of gold bullion, jewelry, and gold fillings from the mouths of concentration camp victims was found.
'Before everybody starts running off to Switzerland, they should release the minutes of the Tripartite Gold Commission," says Rabbi Marvin Hier, who heads the Los Angeles-based Wiesenthal Center. "That's the story that has gotten absolutely no attention." Formed and governed by Britain, France and the United States under the terms of the 1946 Paris Agreement on Reparations, the commission was created to distribute the 303 tons of captured Nazi gold, worth $4.2 billion today. Overwhelmed by the prospect of thousands of individual claims, the commission decreed that only countries - not individuals - could be recipients. "It was a bad call," says Bronfman. From its first days, the minutes of the meetings of this powerful panel have been kept secret, and can be released only with joint permission of England, France, and the United States. Hier, has written President Clinton and Prime Minister John Major beseeching them to make these vital records public.
However, should they be, many parties, including the United States, may be in need of their own damage-control experts. Because O.S.S. agents had kept the Allies abreast of Swiss collaboration throughout the war, there was drop-dead shock when the Swiss then lied outright about having any looted German gold. Soon, they revised their statement, saying that they had German gold but that none of it was looted - a transparent lie. As negotiable in Washington in 1946 progressed, however, the Swiss delegates admitted that their banks had bought about $386 million worth of gold from Germany during the war. "So why did they get away with repaying only $58 million back to the Tripartite Commission?" Hier demands, "For god sake, everyone knew about the Swiss from day one. And how was it that the Commission turned over $38 million (worth about $413 million today) to Austria? They weren't victims. They were collaborators!"
"It was two minutes to midnight when we discovered that there was two tons of Nazi gold worth $80 million sitting in the Federal Reserve in New York and another four tons in London," recounts Elan Steinberg of the W.J.C. "We found the gold in August, and it was supposed to be sent out in December." Learning of the gold's existence, Edgar Bronfman was intent on snagging it for Holocaust restitution. He pulled out all the stops, collaring D'Amato and Clinton, until he succeeded in freezing the shipment.
"It is, in fact, possible to DNA gold," explains Steinberg. "One can find out if the basis of gold is jewelry, bullion or the dental work of victims." Exactly how much of the 303 tons of Tripartite gold was dental fillings of death-camp victims will never be known, but Jewish leaders claim that a good portion of it was. According to one estimate, from the Holocaust Resource Center in Queens, New York, as much as 72 pounds of gold was wrested every day from the mouths of victims at Auschwitz.
"The French were bastards, of course," says Steinberg. "They wanted it distributed right away. They wanted their money." Bronfman has even stronger words. "The French were offering Jews to the Nazis even before they asked for them," he says disgustedly. As for the current president, he mumbles, "Chirac is a pain in the ass." However, while the French have offered only reluctant, tepid support for Holocaust restitution, the British have done Churchill proud. Greville Janner, a Labor M.P. and a member of the World Jewish Congress, has championed the cause in Britain, seeing to it that 10 Downing Street agreed to freeze the gold. With the Americans and British adamant in their demand, the French eventually caved.
Verena Grendelmeier is not alone in suspecting that the Swiss did very little that the Allies did not learn about and brought to their attention. The fact that every revelation to date has come from the files of the National Archives in Washington and British Intelligence reports means that whatever dirty business the Swiss were meddling in, the Allies knew and tolerated. Although Allied knowledge hardly mitigates the crimes of the Swiss, it does suggest a degree of hypocrisy. "The Allies were much more interested in finding a reliable partner against Moscow than in learning the truth about Nazi assets in Swiss banks," Grendelmeir says In November, the National Archives released reports of British Intelligence agents who in 1941 had broken the Germans' code and discovered that Jews were being massacred. The U.S. had received similar intelligence, including aerial-reconnaissance photographs of Auschwitz. The Allies knew where many of the death camps were located, but one of Roosevelt's chief advisors, John J. McCloy, vetoed requests to bomb the camps or even the rail lines that carried the condemned to their grim end. Had he done so, as he was repeatedly urged in 1944, it is possible that many Jews might have been spared - including the families of Margita and Jacob Friedman and Alice Fisher, who were gassed in the last year of he war. Following the war, John McCloy granted clemency to some of the most notorious Nazi war criminals, including Alfred Krupp, the industrialist who armed Hitler, and he turned a blind eye on the flow of Nazis and their loot into South America.
In October, a French journalist charged that the French government had confiscated the homes of thousands of Parisian Jews who were sent to the camps. Most embarrassing, President Chirac's brother-in-law is living in an apartment building once owned by a holocaust victim. In mid-December, the Red Cross admitted that it had known about the systematic murder of Jews but kept silent for fear of losing access to prisoner-of-war camps. "The International Committee of the Red Cross has shared responsibility for the silence of the world community, "said Georges Willemin, its archivist. Asked why the organization had waited more than 50 years to make its disclosure, Willemin responded with unexpected candor. "Because it takes time to face your history," he said.
Evidently some, including the CIA, are not ready to face theirs. When New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney proposed legislation last year to declassify all files on Nazi war criminals, the C.I.A. demanded that they be kept sealed for national-security reasons. The intelligence agency prevailed, though many wonder what in the files could possibly affect our national security today. If we are asking the Swiss to bare every skeleton in their closets, how can we insist on keeping our own closets sealed. The smart money is betting that Clinton will lobby for the release of the Tripartite Commission's minutes and override the C.I.A. on the war crime files, letting the chips fall where they may. "We know there are going to be some unpleasant revelations for us as a country," says one key insider. "That's why we got Stu Eizenstat on board."
Insiders already have their eyes riveted on Argentina. "Eichmann tried to escape with a convoy of trucks filled with looted gold and cash," says Rabbi Hier. "The trucks were stopped by the Allies, but Eichmann did get away." An astonishing State Department report from 1945 rattles off the names of some the biggest Nazi war criminals and their plunder with shocking casualness: [Reichsmarschall Hermann] Goering previously sent more than $20,000,000 of his personal fortune...via the Schweizer Bank in Geneva... Goering is also reported to have transferred some funds to Argentina by a Nazi submarine in the Spring of 1945. ...Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels has $1,850,000 in [U.S. dollars] in a safe deposit box in a German controlled bank in Buenos Aires under the name of a friend of German origin...Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop has a large sum deposited in the name of his cousin, a German named Martin, who recently received $500,000 from a Swiss bank from the account of a Nazi diplomat.
n December, Bronfman lit a new firestorm when he asked that the Swiss Banks create an immediate "interim fund" as a "good faith gesture so that those who have suffered so much may yet in their lifetime see some measure of justice done." The figure mentioned in back-channel talks was $250 million, which the Bronfman cadre views only as a down payment. "I'm in a hurry," said Bronfman. "The survivors are dying." The Swiss responded with unbridled fury. Outgoing President Jean-Pascal Delamuraz, denounced Bronfman's request. "This is nothing less than extortion and blackmail....I ask myself if Auschwitz is in Switzerland," he snapped in the last days of his term as President. "This has one link in Washington and another in London, where it is was a matter of nothing else than trying to demolish Switzerland." Following Delamuraz's comments and prior to a subsequent apology he made, Jewish groups in Switzerland reported receiving an enormous amount of hate mail.
Swiss public opinion soon turned against the banks. On January 9, they lost what little credibility remained to them when a security guard caught the country's largest bank, the Union Bank of Switzerland, shredding hundreds of pounds of documents - perhaps in violation of recently passed Swiss legislation specifically prohibiting the banks from destroying wartime records. The guard, Christoph Meili, was promptly suspended. Bank officials said that, although no inventory had been kept, they were certain that no relevant documents had been destroyed. However, the records rescued by Meili flatly refuted the bank's claim, since many concern a former subsidiary bank which had extensive dealings with the Third Reich, including the bank's minutes of meetings from 1920 to 1926. Still, the minutes detailing the vitally important 193'0s and 40s have not been discovered, according to Swiss journalist Gisela Blau. Possibly they were shredded.
Moreover, a recently unearthed memo describes the Union Bank as second only to Credit Suisse in violating the Allied "Code of Conduct," by storing stolen art from Jewish collectors on behalf of Goering and "providing the enemy" with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last year of the war. Most alarming is the revelation that Adolf Hitler himself maintained accounts at the Union Bank under the name of his friend Max Ammann.
Almost immediately, the Union Bank laid blame for the shredding on a "historian." Erwin Haggenmuller, whom it suspended. However, Haggenmuller is not a historian but an economist and a longtime executive at the bank, who in 1993 was assigned to supervise its archives. When reporters rushed to his home, they were rebuffed by Union Bank security guards. The next day the house was closed, and a message on the answering machine said that Haggenmuller was out of town. On January 17th, Union Bank president Robert Studer generated a new cycle of outrage when he impugned Meili's integrity on national television, suggesting that the guard might have acted out of other motives. One week later, Meili's attorney filed suit against Struder for criminal defamation. In support of Meili, who said that he did not even know any Jews, the Anti-Defamation League donated 50,000 Swiss francs ($36,000) for a legal-defense fund. However, the money was rejected by at least two banks, which wanted nothing to do with the whistle blowing Meili. A conservative Zurich newspaper, Blick, summed up the nation's disbelief with the front-page headline DEAR U.B.S. IT STINKS!Humiliated by the debacle, the banks agreed on January 23 to Bronfman's idea of an "interim fund."
Last November, Bronfman flew to Oslo, where he led the W.J.C.'s conference on restitution. Bronfman then met with Norway's King Herald and accepted the Norwegian government's apology for the 1,600 Norwegian Jews Bronfman says were turned over to the Gestapo, 700 of whom were murdered. The property of all 1,600 had been auctioned off by the government. At Bronfman's urging, the Norwegians agreed to investigate ways to provide restitution "at current values" for survivors and heirs. "It gives us great precedent," says Bronfman. Similar deals, he says, have been worked out with Slovakia and East Germany.The same week, the W.J.C.'s Israel Singer hammered out an agreement in Stockholm, having learned that the neutral Swedes, like the Swiss, engaged in lucrative trade and banking with the Third Reich. They also had questionable banking procedures regarding wartime Jewish depositors.
The W.J.C. claims that many of the Swedish banks quietly pocketed the money of those who died. Confronted by Singer, the Swedes promptly announced their intention to investigate whether this happened. Last summer, Bronfman persuaded the Hungarians to set up a $26 million foundation to pay monthly restitution to all survivors living in Hungary. Next on his list are Holland and France.Bronfman also maintains an ongoing dialogue with Pope John Paul II, whom he views as a friend and an ally. Their relationship began in 1986, when an order of Carmelite nuns moved into a monastery within the grounds of Auschwitz and erected a 40 foot cross, which towered over the crematorium of millions of Jews. "I wrote him a letter," says Bronfman, "and, basically said, 'Get those damn nuns out of there. Or there won't be a relationship between Catholics and Jews.' Of course, I said it in a nicer way. Look, the Pope has his problems. You think the Jews have divisions between the Reformed and the Orthodox. You should talk to the Catholics. I wouldn't want to be the Pope. But he couldn't have been lovelier, and he did, in fact, get the nuns out of there," says Bronfman. "The cross is still there," he adds, "but we're working on it."
Bronfman continues to circle the world, an imperfect but fierce avenging angel seeking to comfort the ghosts of his slaughtered brethren. "We don't want blood," he says, "only justice." For their sake, he says he is willing to humiliate prime ministers and presidents. His constituency is a narrow one: the dead and those who have survived - and their heirs. Only to them does he answer.