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U.S., Britain, open fund to help Holocaust survivors

Conference participants   
December 2, 1997
Web posted at: 4:04 p.m. EST (2104 GMT)

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LONDON (CNN) -- Britain and the United States said on Tuesday they had opened a fund to compensate survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and they were giving almost $6 million to set it in motion.

The announcement came on the first day of an international conference to pool knowledge and discuss what to do with gold known to have been looted by the Nazis, who ruled Germany before and during World War II.

"We are here to help clarify one of the darkest episodes in human history," British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said in his opening speech.

Bronfman Cook
Edgar Bronfman (l) of the World Jewish Congress said he is tired of waiting for reparations
icon 204K/20 sec. AIFF or WAV sound
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook (r) describes what he hopes the conference will accomplish
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Delegates from 41 countries, Jewish groups and other organizations are attending the three-day conference in a bid to clear up the remaining mysteries.

Jewish groups cite desperate need of survivors

Cook said Britain would contribute $1.55 million to the new fund while U.S. Undersecretary Stuart Eizenstat said Washington would donate $4 million immediately and hoped to give a total of $25 million over a three-year period.

Jewish organizations say there are around 300,000 survivors of Nazi persecution, many of them in desperate financial need.

"We may be able through this conference to establish funds that will assist them and make sure they don't experience a second tragedy of having spent their youth being persecuted and now dying in poverty in their old age," Cook said.

Most of the looted gold has long since been redistributed to the central banks of countries invaded by the Nazis.

But the Tripartite Gold Commission, set up by the United States, Britain and France after the war to restore the gold to its rightful owners, still has 5.5 tons of gold which is claimed by 15 countries.

The United States and Britain want those countries to relinquish their claim so that the gold can be added to the new fund. France, however, said the value of the 2.2 tons of gold in its possession would be distributed directly through French Jewish agencies.

Switzerland rejects demands for more compensation

Switzerland, meantime, rejected new Jewish demands for billions of dollars in compensation for buying looted Nazi gold.

"The Swiss never participated in the Holocaust, it was not a collaborator in the Holocaust, and we are not required to pay any compensation," Thomas Borer, head of the Swiss government's task force on Holocaust issues, said in a radio interview.

"We have taken measures no other country has taken," he told the conference. "We have set the pace," he said.

Confiscated gold
A soldier sits on a pile of gold   

After an international outcry, the Swiss earlier this year waived their secrecy laws and opened up their archives and bank vaults to scrutiny. The government also set up a $189 million aid fund for Holocaust survivors financed by Swiss banks and businesses.

But those steps are not enough, some Jewish groups say. The World Jewish Congress estimates Switzerland still owes $8.5 billion -- at today's prices -- for gold plundered through Nazi invasions and accepted by Switzerland from Hitler's bankers.

It says $3 billion of that may be stolen assets from individuals, some of the gold melted down from concentration camp victims' teeth or wedding rings.

Correspondent Siobhan Darrow and Reuters contributed to this report.

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