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Madeleine Kunin Never Felt Anti-Semitism in Vermont — but Switzerland Was Different Story

Image by Kurt Hoffman

The only whiff of anti-Semitism that I experienced during my campaign for governor of Vermont took the form of a reporter’s question. He asked my campaign manager Liz Bankowski: “How are you going to deal with Madeleine Kunin’s liabilities?”

“What liabilities?” Liz asked.

“Well, she’s a woman, a democrat and she’s Jewish.”

Liz thought for a moment before posing him a question: “Has anyone said that being Jewish was a liability?

“Err, no,” the reporter weakly replied.

“Then it isn’t a story,” Liz said. With that retort, she quashed the story.

The main reason I didn’t experience anti-Semitism during my three terms as governor was that people couldn’t figure out the derivation of my name, or how to pronounce it. I sometimes speculate whether my life would have been different if I had married a Cohen or a Goldberg. I’d like to think not.

As it turned out, my name often morphed into something else — McCuen, McKeon, McKay, Cunin, or some other variation of Kunin, which gave me Irish or Scottish forbearers.

When, in 1984, I was elected as the fourth woman governor (in her own right) in the United States, several groups took credit. The American Medical Society ran this headline: “Doctor’s Wife Is Elected Governor.”

The Aufbau had a different angle: “Jewish Woman Elected Governor.”

Few, if any, Vermonters subscribed to the Aufbau. Not that I hid my religion. I went to the synagogue with my family the first Friday night after the Tuesday election to pray for God’s blessing. My family celebrated the Jewish holidays. I was thrilled to be asked to dedicate a new synagogue in Manchester, Vermont, a town that once had “restricted” policies at some inns.

Madeleine Kunin Image by Paul Boisvert

My bio stated that my mother, brother and I had left Switzerland at the outbreak of World War II because of the threat of the Holocaust. My religion was not a problem. I was a Vermonter. I was often described as the first woman governor, but never as the first Jewish woman governor. That would change soon after I was appointed the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland by former President Bill Clinton in 1996.

Several newspapers referred to me as “the Jewish American Ambassador.” For the first time my religion mattered in my public life. One reason was the issue of Switzerland’s role in World War II. It would be in the news almost every day for the next three years. Switzerland is normally considered a quiet ambassadorial post. In the land of fine chocolate and expensive watches, relations with the United States have been cordial for as long as people can remember. But when I arrived, the signs of tension over Switzerland’s neutrality had begun to emerge. Because time was running out for Holocaust survivors, they and the state department and Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and B’nai Brith, were asking hard questions. Did the Swiss National Bank buy Nazi looted gold from the German Reichsbank? Were desperate Jews turned away at the Swiss border and forced into the hands of Nazi captors? Who were the owners of Nazi looted art that ended up in Swiss museums, galleries and private collections?

I sat in the upstairs gallery of the Swiss Parliament with the Israeli ambassador while the Swiss Parliament debated whether or not to appoint an international commission to undertake a broad and inclusive study of Switzerland’s role during World War II. My photo was on the front page of the Berner Zeitung the next day. Merely by showing up, I had sent the message that the United States considered the commission to be of great importance. The resolution was adopted and the Bergier Independent Commission of Experts was formed. The Swiss penchant for thoroughness delayed the publication until long after interest in the subject had waned. The independent report remains valuable as an historic document; it was coolly critical of Switzerland’s relationship to Nazi Germany in World War II.

After the vote was taken in Parliament, I praised Switzerland for having taken the first step to assessing its role in the war. Then, they took the next step. One morning, while reading the Economist in my office, I discovered that the banks had published a list of dormant account holders, defying their own bank secrecy laws. I perused the list and paused. Could that be right? There was Renee May, my mother’s name. Now, I was part of the story. The Swiss wondered if I could remain objective. The state department asked the same question. Of course I could, I replied. I was a professional and had separated my personal feelings from my public persona throughout my career. I would continue to do so now.

The first test came when I accepted an invitation to appear on an evening news current events discussion program. My knowledge of Swiss German is at a first-grade level and I should have known not to accept the invitation. But I did. One participant was a banker, another was the head of the Jewish community in Germany. I recall one particularly heated exchange. The Jewish man spoke about the annihilation of the Jews in Germany. The banker replied, “Aber wir haben auch opfer,” or, “We also had to sacrifice,” and described the deprivations suffered by Swiss soldiers at the border during the war and food rationing for the populace. The audacity of the banker to equate Swiss suffering with that of the victims of the Holocaust made the head of the Jewish community almost explode. “They have no idea,” I said to myself, “what happened in the Holocaust.” I blurted out some ungrammatical sentences in the Jewish leader’s defense but felt totally inadequate. I realized that comparing one person’s suffering to that of another can never work.

My armor of objectivity had begun to crack. I remained dispassionate externally, but paid the price of internal anguish. I felt responsible not only to restore those stolen funds, but also to maintain the memory of the victims and survivors themselves. The money became symbolic of the victims, and restitution remained the only tangible form of atonement.

After building up good will with the Swiss government while simultaneously pressuring for more action to be taken in retrieving the bank accounts, a bomb dropped. The state department issued what became known as the Eizenstat Report, put together by Stuart Eizenstat, Ambassador to the European Union, which provided a detailed study of Switzerland’s role during the war. Few read the entire report, but everyone appeared to have read the introduction. Two points were made: First, that Switzerland’s dealing with the German national bank may have prolonged the war because Germany could have financed the war with Swiss francs, earned from the sale of Nazi looted gold. The second charge was that the gold (actual gold bricks, stored underground in the Bern’s main square) contained both gold stolen from occupied countries, and gold that belonged to Holocaust victims, including teeth.

Swiss outrage erupted. Many Swiss went on the defensive: We had no choice, they claimed, we were surrounded by Nazi occupied countries. We had to survive. Simultaneously, anti-Semitism came to the surface. Unflattering remarks about Jews were now uttered in living rooms and cafes, and became acceptable to make. One conservative parliamentarian, Adolf Blocher, was quoted as saying, “All the Jews want is money.” A magazine published an article listing how many Jewish members of parliament there were (one), and how many Jews owned department stores. Some nasty cartoons surfaced, featuring caricatures of Jews with big noses and beards

Not everyone reacted negatively. I found a photo of a group of high school students in the newspaper. They had started a Holocaust survivors fund. I met with the students at their school for a wide-ranging conversation about Switzerland and World War II. Not all of their classmates agreed with their project, they said, but they persevered and raised significant funds.

Switzerland was the country of my birth. My widowed mother and my brother immigrated to America when I was almost 7, and I returned with my mother after the war to decide whether to move back. My mother never could have dreamed that her daughter would one day take a homeward journey as the American ambassador.

I have sentimental memories of my childhood in Switzerland and of the year my family spent there in 1969, when my husband took a sabbatical. A slight shadow began to fall over my picture book image of sunny, snow-peaked Switzerland during my ambassadorship from 1996 to 1999. Some impressions remained unchanged: happy times with cousins, good friends, and excellent colleagues in the embassy, and the important assistance of Ambassador Eizenstat. By the time I left Switzerland I had gained unexpected praise for my work from the press. I took satisfaction from the agreement that the Swiss banks signed with the plaintiffs to provide $1.7 billion for distribution to survivors and heirs, including my brother and me, which amounted to $100 for each of us. I learned that a Swiss bank account does not earn interest; it pays interest to the bank.

How deep is the anti-Semitism in Switzerland? When I returned for a visit and had dinner with two couples, a woman who I considered a friend was astounded when she learned that I was Jewish. “You’re Jewish?” she questioned twice, raising her voice an octave higher. I smiled, “Yes.”

Bill Clinton may have been right in picking a Jewish woman to become the American ambassador to Switzerland, whether he was aware of my religion or not. I concluded that I was the right person at the right time, during which I could help achieve near-closure (the work continues) on one small chapter of the Holocaust.

In my effort to get information, I first visited the man who the Swiss banks had designated to search for dormant accounts and unite them with their owners. He had a small office in a residential area and was clearly frustrated and overworked. If a Holocaust survivor or heir wished to find his or her bank account, he or she would have to climb over several high bureaucratic hurdles. First came a fee of 100 francs to conduct the search for each possible bank. Next, petitioners were frequently asked for a death certificate. That request was one indicator that the banks were largely ignorant of the reality of life and death in concentration camps. Despite the German penchant for record keeping, no death certificates were issued to any of the victims.

My first proposal was to request that the banks establish a Holocaust education fund using part of the missing funds. It never took hold because the banks and the government felt no obligation to participate. The word “guilt” was never uttered. I was told that Switzerland had been neutral during the war and was surrounded by Nazi-occupied countries. They had no choice but to work with the German national bank.

For the first time in my political life I felt the tension between my public role and my personal life. I had always been professional as the governor of Vermont, keeping my emotions in check no matter how divisive or emotional the argument.

Several people had asked me if Bill Clinton had appointed me as the ambassador because I was Jewish. I was surprised; he probably did not know I was Jewish. It turned out, however, that being Jewish made a difference to me. As I experienced frustration with banking officials, I found it increasingly difficult to remain dispassionate.

I had looked forward to an important meeting with the head of the Swiss banking system, Herr Mayer. I would offer my proposal for an education fund, which I was confident would be a well received. My assistant and I stepped into the shiny elevator of the tall Sarasin bank and pressed the button to the top floor.

We were ushered into his office and sat around a shiny black oblong table. When I explained how difficult it was for Holocaust survivors or heirs of those who were killed to search for their accounts, he immediately said that there were very few wartime accounts in Switzerland because most people had sent their money to the United States for safe keeping. I could not penetrate his wall of denial. I tried to explain the power imbalance between the banks and the account holders. He acknowledged none of it. We said a polite good-bye.

When we arrived in the lobby, I was greeted by a French cousin, Germaine, who lived in Basel. Her daughter had arranged that we would meet for lunch. We had not met before but we hugged one another as if we had known each other for a long time. She was family.

As we walked down the street to her favorite Italian restaurant I recounted my conversation with Herr Mayer. The anger I had suppressed was now free to escape. Tears ran down my cheeks. I was angry with him and with myself. Why couldn’t I have been more effective in making my argument that the banks had to make it easier for Jews to get their money back, that the banks should provide compensation for those who couldn’t trace their accounts? I felt responsible. I realized over time that the conversation had not been only about money, but also ”about acknowledging the reality of the Holocaust itself. Switzerland’s neutrality formed a shield against what was happening in the rest of Europe. They could argue that they did not know, even if they did.

In our small Italian restaurant I listened to Germaine tell me over a two-hour lunch about how Andre and Mimi had tried to cross from France into Switzerland, and were arrested and placed into separate camps. Later, they went back to France and managed to survive. Andre told the whole story to my mother one night. I wished I had not been asleep.

Andre’s brother was arrested, imprisoned in Paris, and was never heard from again. The stories continued way beyond dessert. “I wish Herr Mayer could hear these stories, could see their faces!” I exclaimed.

By the time my tour of duty had come to end, and Swiss banks had agreed to provide a lump sum of $1.7 billion, it seemed that Herr Mayer had changed his mind. Or had he? The beginning of an American boycott against Swiss goods may have scared him into reversing his position.

My tour of duty in Switzerland deepened my understanding of both my Swiss and Jewish heritage and made me appreciate all the more what it meant to be an American and a Vermonter. “

Madeleine Kunin served as governor of Vermont from 1985 to 1991 and U.S. ambassador to Switzerland from 1996 to 1999.

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