LONDON -- Thomas Borer, a blunt Swiss diplomat, took on the head of the World Jewish Congress yesterday over Switzerland's culpability in the handling of gold the Nazis stole from Holocaust victims and conquered countries.
"The Swiss never participated in the Holocaust, it was not a collaborator in the Holocaust, and we are not required to pay any compensation," Borer told a radio interviewer.
The chief of the Swiss delegation at a Nazi gold conference here was responding to World Jewish Congress president Edgar Bronfman's renewed contention that Switzerland owed billions of dollars to Holocaust survivors.
Bronfman told delegates from 41 countries at the opening of three-day conference that "Switzerland was the initial recipient of 85 percent of all the gold Germany shipped to foreign locations from March 1938 to June 1945."
Bronfman added: "It therefore still owes between two to three billion dollars, if it is to conform with the 1943 Allied declaration that all looted gold handled by neutrals must be returned after the war."
Switzerland has made some moves toward compensating Holocaust survivors, but Borer reacted as if Bronfman's latest demands were excessive.
"We fail to understand these most recent statements of Mr. Bronfman," Borer said. "Such extreme final demands, all inclusive demands, lack any objective basis."
Borer added: "We are going to justify all claims that are made or forwarded. No Swiss franc that does not belong in Switzerland will remain in Switzerland."
He noted the Swiss have already established a $190 million fund to aid Holocaust survivors in eastern Europe. An international panel is probing Switzerland's financial past. Financial experts are also scouring Swiss bank records for assets left dormant by Holocaust victims and Nazis.
The Swiss have also sought to establish a $4.7 billion foundation for victims of oppression and suffering. But the initiative needs to be approved in a public referendum that won't take place until next year, at the earliest.
"This whole subject is not about money," Borer said. "It's a moral discussion."
But there also seems to be a subtle negotiation under way.
Bronfman pressed the Swiss during the conference. But later, he called on state and local officials in the United States to delay placing any sanctions on Swiss banks when they meet Dec. 8 in New York to discuss the issue.
The Borer-Bronfman verbal joust highlighted the tensions beneath the surface of a conference charged with trying to untangle the history of looted gold used to finance the Nazi war machine.
The conference opened with stirring speeches and a moral challenge, as the United States and Great Britain made initial payments of nearly $6 million to establish a fund for needy Holocaust survivors.
"We are here to ensure we do not forget the most awful memory known to man," said British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, in announcing a $1.7 million donation.
The United States contributed $4 million as a "down payment" on a total of $25 million over the next three years -- pending Congressional approval.
Stuart E. Eizenstat, U.S. undersecretary of state, said the United States was involved in the fund "because of our own actions and inactions after the war, and because of the urgent needs of those Holocaust survivors who have received little or no compensation in the intervening years."
Officials of the two countries were hoping to kick-start a donation stampede among 15 claimant nations due the final 5.5 million tons of the Nazi gold, now worth $54 million.
The gold is the last cache held by the Tripartite Gold Commission, composed of the United States, Britain and France, and charged with collecting and dispensing Nazi gold back to the countries from which it was seized by the Nazis.
Luxembourg, due a final gold payment, and Argentina, which was not a World War II belligerent, announced contributions.
But France, which is due 2.2 million tons of gold, waited for an announcement tomorrow by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. The Netherlands also said it was waiting until the end of the conference before announcing what it would do with its share.
Eizenstat remained hopeful that others would participate in the fund and that the conference would fulfill its mission of uncovering the paper trail of the looted gold.
But a conflice ensued when the United States pressed for the immediate release of Tripartite Gold Commission records. Britain and France want the still-secret records to remain closed until all the gold has been released.
"This is the beginning of the pooling of knowledge," Eizenstat said. "We're trying to sort fact from fiction."
Pub Date: 12/03/97