A Swiss fund for Holocaust victims set up after criticism of Switzerland's role in World War Two has successfully distributed nearly all of its cash, officials said on Thursday as they prepared to wind it up.
The Fund for Needy Victims of the Holocaust, financed by the state and private business five years ago, has paid out 295 million Swiss francs ($176 million) worldwide to 312,000 Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and other survivors of Nazi death camps.
Payments of between 400 and 2,000 francs ($360-$1,200) were made to people in 40 countries, notably in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Israel and the United States.
Amid accusations that neutral Switzerland and some of its companies helped Nazi Germany, the Swiss government set up the fund in February 1997, taking donations from the Swiss National Bank and private companies. It will finally be wound up in May.
Described as a "solidarity" rather than compensation fund, it is separate from a $1.25 billion deal Swiss banks made in 1998 to settle complaints that they had profited from money left in accounts held by people who disappeared in the Holocaust.
"The pressure on Switzerland at the time was huge," Rolf Bloch, the president of the Needy Victims fund, told a news conference in Geneva. "This is a humanitarian, financial gesture -- the only instrument Switzerland has offered."
"When we contacted these people, I was embarrassed because they were my contemporaries who had survived the camps whereas I escaped that suffering by being born in Switzerland, just 100 km (60 miles) from Germany or France," said Bloch, who is Jewish.
"For many it was the first international recognition of their fate -- something material as well as moral."
"The money received represented a small fortune in many countries," said Barbara Ekwall, a Swiss Finance Ministry official who is secretary-general of the Zurich-based fund. Difficulties included slow mail in eastern Europe and legal difficulties getting foreign currency to people untaxed. Most beneficiaries used the money for medical expenses, food or fuel.