"Hitler's Silent Partners," by Isabel Vincent. Morrow. 337 pages. $25.
By now, few people who have scanned the news reports will be shocked to learn that Switzerland's "neutral role" role in World War II was less immaculate than the snows of Matterhorn. The evidence dug up by American Jewish and non-Jewish agencies in the past few years shows beyond reasonable doubt that between the early 1930s and the Allied victory, Switzerland or, more specifically, its secrecy-shrouded banks happily opened the vaults to billions of dollars worth of smelted gold and other assets the Nazis had stolen from their Jewish victims.
At the same time, the bureaucracy made it virtually impossible for Holocaust survivors to reclaim funds deposited by themselves or by their relatives.
How did that widely admired paragon among nations permit itself to become - one must hope temporarily - something of a pariah? Why did the birthplace of the Red Cross, the erstwhile host of the League of Nations, the sanctuary of Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein, bend its own financial laws to provide monetary support for Hitler's cause?
Isabel Vincent, an able investigative reporter, has come up with some persuasive and intriguing answers. She offers a road map of the twisting money trail from the machinations of the Nazi thugs and the Reichsbank to the Swiss institutions.
At times, the trail winds through labyrinthine financial jungles seemingly impenetrable to all but the canniest economic experts. It was, after all, only fairly recently that Switzerland, under international pressure, opened the ledgers to foreign scrutiny. Picking up all the right spoors after more than half a century would daunt a bloodhound.
The prime value of the book lies in Vincent's effort to reach beyond the dusty documents and give the dismal tale a human dimension. Her re-creation of the perilous lives and times of an Austrian-Jewish family, culled from interviews, striving to retrieve rightful legacy from the Swiss, resonates like a Greek chorus.
While Vincent demonstrates Switzerland's culpability behind the shield of neutrality, she cautions against excessive Swiss-bashing, frequently led by Sen. D'Amato and the World Jewish Congress. As Rolf Bloch, president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities argues, "Switzerland may have profited from the war, but it did not knowingly and deliberately profit from the Holocaust. Switzerland was not Auschwitz ..."
Switzerland's intense soul-searching, reports Vincent, has led to concrete action. Last February, Swiss President Arnold Koller committed his government to a $4.7 billion special fund to benefit Holocaust survivors. "Today," said Koller, "we do not have to feel ashamed that we escaped the war. Every country defended primarily its own interests. And we, too, are entitled to this right. We had the right to survive. But nevertheless the question arises as to whether and what extent all Swiss citizens managed to satisfy the high moral demands during the war period. That means we have to admit the dark side of that period." Well said.
Perhaps survivor Herbie Stilman said it even better: "All we want is what belonged to [our] grandfather. Whether it's twenty dollars or two thousand dollars or two hundred thousand dollars, it doesn't matter. We just want it back."
Hans Knight, a former reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin and editorial writer for the Harrisburg Patriot News, was a translator at the Nuremberg Trials for the United States War Department. His free-lance writing is widely published in the New York Times and The Sun among others.
Pub Date: 10/05/97