July 17, 1997
By Tom Tugend,
About the time one is tempted to feel a wee bit sorry for the Swiss over the barrage of flak they're now getting, along comes a new probe of the country's conduct during World War II to set the blood boiling again.
The latest entry is the first-rate "Investigative Reports: Blood Money: Switzerland's Nazi Gold," which will première on July 26, at 10 p.m., over the A&E cable television network.
"Blood Money," which runs for two hours, is not to be confused with last month's spotty and unsatisfactory one-hour PBS "Frontline" program on the same topic.
Obviously, the A&E producers not only have dug more deeply than their PBS counterparts but have cast their investigative net more widely, while adding valuable background material.
For one, the Swiss are given a fair crack at making their case, with lengthy explanations by their special envoy, Thomas Borer, and the photogenic Robert Studer.
Studer, who heads the Union Bank of Switzerland, tries to explain, rather lamely, why his enterprise shredded wartime records of Jewish accounts.
Another witness for the defense is Hans Baer, chairman of the only Jewish-owned bank in Switzerland, but he seemed a bit ambivalent.
The Swiss generally claim that they were forced to cooperate with the Nazis but, in their hearts, were for the Allies. But Baer had a slightly different take.
While the French-speaking Swiss were for France, the preponderant German-speaking majority of the population favored the Reich until realizing that the war was going the other way, Baer noted, mildly.
"Blood Money" reveals other interesting facts:
- While claiming that it was unable to accommodate more Jewish refugees because "the boat was full," Switzerland managed to find room for 235,000 refugees, of whom only 27,000 were Jews. The latter depended on support from the small resident Jewish community, or were put into labor camps.
- Swiss banks shipped gold looted by the Nazis to South America, in what is described as "the biggest capital transfer in history."
- After the war, Switzerland helped Nazi bigwigs to escape -- of course, charging their guests big money for temporary Swiss residence permits.
Among its rare footage, "Blood Money" shows the only Allied air raid on a Swiss target, a ball-bearing plant in Schaffhausen that was working for the German war machine.
Not all Swiss are trying to stonewall or exculpate their wartime deeds. For instance, parliamentarian Verena Grendelmeier is urging her countrymen to face up to their misdeeds and responsibilities.
Through it all, the deepest impressions are of the children of Holocaust martyrs, who have spent decade after decade trying to access their parents' Swiss bank accounts.
Most moving is the testimony of Estelle Sapir, who's living in a single room in a New York boarding house. She has been trying to convince Swiss bank officials for the last 50 years that she couldn't produce her father's death certificate, since none were issued at Auschwitz.
Host Bill Kurtis keeps the plot line moving and connected in his sparse and effective narrative.