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Miami Herald, The (FL)
April 17, 1997
Section: Front
Edition: Final
Page: 16A


After weeks of criticism for its slow pace in joining the international hunt for ``Nazi gold,'' Argentina plans to form a commission to investigate transfers of looted treasure during and after World War II.

By Wednesday evening, the decision hadn't yet been announced in Argentina. But Ruben Beraja, president of the Delegation of Jewish Argentine Associations (DAIA), confirmed in a telephone conversation that Foreign Minister Guido di Tella had told him of the plan earlier in the day.
``I obviously supported the idea,'' he said. ``I think it's necessary, and I hope they'll announce it in the next two or three days.''

Argentina is widely believed to be one of the main landing points for money stolen by the Nazis from Jews and other victims. In a recently declassified memo from April 1945, the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires judged Nazi assets in the country to be more than $1 billion.

Yet President Carlos Menem's government has drawn complaints from some Jewish leaders for dragging its feet in pursuing what happened to the wealth. Last month, Sergio Widder, the Latin American representative for the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, told The Herald he had received no response in his request that officials track information on 334 names of possible Nazis or sympathizers who may have had bank accounts in Argentina.

On Wednesday, Widder said he had finally achieved a meeting, one day earlier, with the president of the Central Bank, who handed him a list of banks existing in Argentina since the 1940s. ``It's not very useful,'' said Widder, who added that he had not been informed of the government's plan to form an investigative commission.

According to Beraja, the government plans to provide a budget and appoint ``international and national figures.'' The general intention, he acknowledged, is to create a body similar to one that started work last month in Brazil, headed by that government's minister of justice.

Disparages plan

In an interview in Buenos Aires last month, Beraja had disparaged the Brazilian plan, saying a commission's independence would be in doubt if it worked under government auspices. He said then that the DAIA planned to form its own group, with private contributions.

On Wednesday, however, he said Di Tella had assured him that the commission's members would be figures of such prestige that their independence could not be questioned. Beraja added that he himself had been invited to join, and was considering doing so.

Beraja's own independence is increasingly being questioned within Buenos Aires' Jewish community, however, due to a recent controversy related to an earlier DAIA investigation of government archives opened with much fanfare four years ago by Menem's government.

Researchers in what became known as Project Testimony eventually studied more than 22,000 documents related to past governments' involvement with Fascist fugitives, preparing a book that was to be published this month, at a cost of $1 million in donations from Argentina's Jewish community. Now, however, the head researcher, Beatriz Gurevich, has been fired, and the date of Project Testimony's release is uncertain.

Gurevich's supporters say she was dismissed because of a radio interview she gave in late February. In it she was asked about a DAIA decision one month earlier to show the draft of Project Testimony to Interior Minister Carlos Corach after which it withheld one of the book's chapters.

Gurevich told the radio reporter that she had not been consulted about either decision, and seemed to indicate that she didn't agree.

Chapter discusses extradition

The withheld chapter deals with foreign governments' attempts to extradite Nazi fugitives, and how those attempts were thwarted by Argentine judges and officials, some of whom still hold public office, according to Carlos Escude, a professor of international relations at Di Tella University and a member of the academic committee that has overseen the DAIA's research.

``All of us who were excited over the project are distraught,'' Escude added. ``Beatriz's firing is a very bad omen for the publication.''

Escude said the problem had been brewing for years, since some DAIA leaders ``have been concerned that the revelations in the documents not bother the government. . . . These documents are available thanks to the Argentine government, but there are people in the community who are very fearful, very cautious and . . . somewhat paranoid.''

Beraja denied that version of events, saying Gurevich had been fired after repeated arguments with the investigators working for her. He said the controversial chapter was held back not because it was sensitive but because it was ``incomplete'' and ``had errors,'' adding that it would be published later this year.

Nonetheless, Beraja's offering of the first draft to the government continues to draw complaints from journalists and Jewish leaders, some of whom say that Beraja, as president of a Buenos Aires bank, is too dependent on government goodwill to be a trustworthy activist for DAIA.

``If I were a shareholder of his bank, I would applaud, but it is a definite conflict of interest,'' said Escude.

Retorted Beraja: ``This is pure slander by people who envy me. Never in the United States would anyone question the right of the head of a nongovernmental organization to work at a bank. They would only do this in a small province, like Argentina.''

Illustration:photo: Ruben Beraja (a)

Copyright (c) 1997 The Miami Herald