Swiss-Armenian lobbied for billions owed to Holocaust survivors
By SADIE CRUZ
PLATTSBURGH— Millions of dormant accounts owned by Jewish people during the Holocaust still rested in Swiss banks in the late 1990s.
That’s when a scandal broke, revealing that the monies were never returned, which led to a lawsuit that eventually issued $1.24 billion to Holocaust survivors and their heirs.
The mystery of the hidden millions would change the way the world looked at Switzerland’s history in relation to World War II.
He was at SUNY Plattsburgh recently, as part of the Douglas R. Skopp Speakers Series on the Holocaust, to talk about his role in the historic case and how the public-relations firm Ruder Finn, where he used to work, played an influential part in making the Swiss banks agree to restitution.
“I never thought this would lead to a job, but it was a matter of the heart,” Tchividjian said.
PRESSING FOR RELEASE
He believes Christians today should have an attitude of repentance and forgiveness for the tragedies that have occurred in that past in the name of Christianity.
Tchividjian, who was the director of program and member services for the New England Israel Chamber of Commerce, said asking forgiveness is not good enough unless you feel a genuine need to repent and do something.
His father was an Armenian refugee who was relocated to Greece, but asked his parents to send him to boarding school in Switzerland.
Switzerland had been good to his family, so he felt he owed a debt to the country.
This motivated Tchividjian in his efforts to change the lives of the many Jewish people and their descendants who were robbed of their money.
He packed his bags for Switzerland for a three-week trip that extended into a three-month quest.
During his trip, he spoke to bankers from UBS and Lloyds bank, politicians, members of parliament, diplomats, leaders of Switzerland’s Jewish community, historians, two federal Supreme Court judges, journalists, accountants and a clergyman to advocate for the refunding of the Swiss bank accounts.
During his time in Switzerland, Tchividjian saw conflicting responses: Some people were utterly shocked about the true Swiss history in World War II, and others sympathized with the Nazis.
Because of the dormant-account scandal, Switzerland had to create the Bergier Commission, led by the Swiss historian Jean-Francois Bergier, and as a country had to revisit Switzerland’s WWII history.
“I think the Swiss had a moral wake-up call, and they realized the history was not as rosy as they thought. And, I think, it’s always good for a country to acknowledge the past and change the attitude,” Tchividjian said.
He said he encountered some anti-semitism and anti-American feelings while he was conversing with Swiss diplomats. One ambassador told him: “We didn’t kill them, and now they mess with us.”
Tchividjian was introduced to Corinne Goetschel, who was on the Paul Volcker Commission, which was investigating the dormant accounts.
“Until then, my idea of the Swiss government was that it was the enemy,” he said.
HELP FROM U.S. FIRM
The Swiss government went to a number of firms seeking help, which all turned them down, until Ruder Finn, a public-relations company from the United States, took on the challenge.
Tchividjian was working for the Swiss government for free while Ruder Finn was being paid, but nevertheless they had the same mission. His meeting with Goetschel was the link to interacting with the Swiss banks themselves and the beginning of his relationship with Ruder Finn.
Goetschel had Hans Baer, chairman of Julius Baer Bank, the largest private bank in Switzerland, on the Paul Volcker Commission with her. The commission wanted the banker to go to Boston, so Tchividjian would organize press events for the Swiss government representative to speak in the United States about the dormant accounts.
Tchividjian organized radio, TV and newspaper interviews. Goetschel introduced him to David Finn of Ruder Finn, who so appreciated Tchividjian’s passion and management of the crisis that he asked Tchividjian first to work for them on the case and later to join the firm as its ethics chair.
To Tchividjian, hearing from the people most affected by this scandal was one of the most difficult parts of the experience. He felt he didn’t do as much as he could and to this day doesn’t know how impactful he was.
He would sometimes get calls from people with relatives who had money in the dormant accounts, and he would connect them with the right people.
“But you never do what’s right because of the impact. You do what’s right because it’s right,” he said.
“And you hope that the impact is what it needs to be.”