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Swiss celebrate country’s anniversary under cloud of criticism

August 1, 1997

GENEVA (AP) _ Swiss celebrated their country’s birthday Friday with traditional yodelers, bonfires and fireworks but looming international criticism over Switzerland’s wartime past clouded the festive air.

The neutral nation, an enemy toward none, has been short on friends as it battles accusations over its dealings with Nazi Germany: Charges that its strict banking secrecy laws hid Nazi-looted gold and kept the heirs of Holocaust victims from finding assets have prompted national soul-searching on what it means to be Swiss.

``The red passport with the Swiss cross has lost much of its gloss,″ said Sigi Feigel, a respected Swiss Jewish leader. ``Our non-Jewish compatriots are discovering for the first time what it means to be singled out as a people.″

On the 149th anniversary of Swiss confederation, Friday’s rainfall matched the meditative mood at many First of August celebrations.

``I’m celebrating because it’s a day off _ but not because I’m patriotic,″ Marianne Kirchhofer, a 44-year-old mother of two from Basel, said as she prepared for festivities at home after the local bonfire was rained out.

``The debate about the Nazi links hasn’t affected our celebrations today one bit _ although it’s always in the background.″

A singer in a yodeling group defended his country.

``We Swiss aren’t as bad as they make out,″ he said, wearing a traditional embroidered jacket during an interview on Swiss television.

``We hear nothing but criticism and it makes me sad,″ his female companion added. Neither was identified.

The days when the Swiss could look down from their Alpine heights at the turmoils of the rest of the world are gone. Now, they sometimes can’t seem to get anything right.

Swiss banks last month dropped their curtain of secrecy to publish the names of nearly 2,000 dormant World War II-era accounts, only to have the effort backfire. Jewish groups protested that too few Jews were on the list, and were appalled to see the names of apparent Nazis among the depositors.

Others noted that with such files in their possession, the bankers should have been able to find the depositors’ heirs with ease a long time ago.

Switzerland found itself in the embarrassing company of dictatorships on Wednesday when President Clinton granted sanctuary to a fired Swiss bank guard, who fled what he said was persecution and death threats after he rescued Holocaust-era documents from a paper shredder.

And a New York judge is considering allowing Holocaust survivors to file a $20 billion class-action lawsuit against Swiss banks.

Hanns Meier, 69, from central Switzerland, said it has been a painful experience.

``I’m from the wartime generation,″ he said. ``I’m proud of being Swiss. The criticism hurts me to the heart because of my parents.″

Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal provided some cause for cheer Friday when he urged Jews to moderate their criticism.

``Only if we (Jews) handle the matter with fairness, we can expect fairness,″ Wiesenthal told The Associated Press. ``The whole of Switzerland, all Swiss, must not be held responsible.″

On Friday, a small group of neo-Nazi skinheads tried to crash the holiday celebration at Ruetli meadow, near Lucerne in the heart of Switzerland. They gave a Nazi-style salute and were temporarily detained by police.

In Bern, lawmaker Francois Loeb set free 1,997 balloons from the national Parliament and called for more unity and compassion in society.

Swiss President Arnold Koller used his First of August speech to appeal to the Swiss people to pull together ``with confidence, solidarity and with an open mind.″

``Then little Switzerland will have a great future as well as a great past,″ he said in a television address.

Even so, Switzerland is in its seventh year of recession with no end in sight. Talks on improving access to European Union markets are in crisis.

The strength of the dollar and British pound against the Swiss franc has helped exports and boosted the beleaguered tourist industry. But wet weather has dashed hopes of a bumper summer for hotels.

Many commentators say the Swiss are to blame for their isolation. By staying out of the United Nations and European Union, as part of their tradition of neutrality, they didn’t manage to win friends in the right places.

``Switzerland is unknown to the rest of the world,″ wrote Frank Meyer, a columnist in the weekly SonntagsBlick. ``Only the myth of Switzerland is known _ the Matterhorn mountain, chocolate, watches and banking secrecy.″

``For decades we used this myth to promote ourselves. And now it’s turned against us.″

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