Anti-Semitism in Switzerland throws gloom on reparations

ZURICH — Disgust over rising Swiss anti- Semitism has cast a shadow over the much-publicized release of names on dormant bank accounts from the Nazi era.

"Keep your money," Israel Singer, the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, told the Swiss in a pique of sarcasm during a news conference Wednesday. "The lists published today are not important if the 18,000-member Jewish minority of this country should suffer from anti-Semitism."

Singer continued: "We know that the Jewish people in [Switzerland] are again afraid. If this is the price of our efforts to bring justice to the Holocaust victims, I feel shame for the Swiss people."

Elan Steinberg, the WJC's executive director, emphasized that Singer was not really telling the Swiss to keep the Jewish money — he was telling them to stop anti-Semitism.

"They have to fight anti-Semitism and turn over the money," Steinberg said from his New York office.

"The Swiss government is responsible for the safety of the Swiss Jewish community," he continued, adding that Swiss Jews "will not be held hostage for this money."

Singer urged Swiss government officials and Swiss opinion makers to be more outspoken in condemning the rising tide of resentment against the Swiss Jewish community, a trend that has grown increasingly visible in recent months.

"We want to hear your voices," he said.

"It is not money alone that we have come for, it is the issue of moral restitution."

Swiss banking officials, meanwhile, expressed contrition at having taken so long to release the names of dormant account-holders.

"I was somewhat ashamed," George Krayer, president of the Swiss Bankers Association, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

"I have not found a figleaf big enough to cover up the negligence of my banking colleagues in the period after the Second World War," he added.

"With a little more effort we could have produced better results."

Yet Gerhart Riegner, the honorary vice president of the World Jewish Congress who also attended the press conference, voiced skepticism that the release of the names would prove all that useful.

"I do not believe the Swiss banks anymore. They lied too much," said Riegner, who in 1942 issued an urgent cable warning of the Holocaust.

"Maybe it is a new start, but I doubt it."

The angry statements came the day the Swiss Bankers Association published the names of some 1,785 dormant accounts in major newspapers in 27 countries including the United States, Israel, France, Russia and Australia.

Singer spoke at a news conference called by the Swiss Bankers Association to announce the publication of the accounts, a move that many observers believe would never have happened without the strong international pressure that was spearheaded over the past two years by Jewish leaders and U.S. officials.

The recent rise of anti-Semitic incidents in Switzerland is widely viewed here as a backlash to the Jewish efforts.

The publication of the accounts represents a dramatic overturning of Switzerland's famed bank secrecy laws.

It is also an ironic twist of history: Switzerland enacted the laws in 1934 to help Jews who were fearful of Nazi reprisals place money in numbered accounts that would ensure the anonymity of depositors.

But after the war, the heirs to many of those accounts got snared by a host of banking technicalities that made the task of recovering family assets virtually impossible. Many of the heirs lost their relatives to the Nazi genocide.

The names and last known address of the account holders were printed in fine print on two pages of the New York Times on Wednesday. The ad invited claimants to "Please come forward. You will receive prompt and serious attention."

One of the non-Jewish names on the list sparked astonishment in some quarters. Dr. Hans Wendland of Germany was "the mastermind in the trafficking of looted art between France and Switzerland," said the WJC's Steinberg, who added Wendland's named "jumped out" when WJC officials scanned the list.

Assuming it is the same person, Wendland was a "notorious figure," Steinberg added.

The ads direct prospective claimants to contact the offices of the international accounting firm Ernst & Young, which will be processing inquiries at their branches in New York, Tel Aviv, Sydney, Basel and Budapest.

The ads list telephone numbers for the offices, as well as a form for requesting an information kit about the claims process.

Arbitrators will "evaluate claims under a relaxed standard of proof," the ad says. "Claims to published accounts will be resolved as soon as possible with a deadline of one year."

The list, along with request forms, is also available on the World Wide Web at

The accounts listed were opened by non-Swiss citizens.

Another list of accounts opened by Swiss citizens, many of whom may have acted as proxies for Jews fearful of reprisals, is slated to be released in the fall.

Most of the depositors on the list released Wednesday had addresses in Germany, France and Austria; many of them had surnames that were likely of Jewish origin.

A spokesman at the Ernst & Young office in Basel reported a heavy response on the first day the ad appeared.

"We had high traffic, and the numbers in various countries have been busy all day long," the spokesman said Wednesday.

In Budapest, the head of the auditing firm said that on the first day the list was published, calls came in not only from around Hungary but from Russia, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

"Every five minutes there is a call, and we have already found one Hungarian person" with a basis for a claim, said Tamas Szabo. He would not release the name.

The accounts published this week have a total value of $42 million, Krayer said.

Swiss bank officials, in testimony last fall before a U.S. congressional panel, said they could only locate 775 accounts that were worth about $32 million.

Jewish groups have charged that Swiss banks are holding up to $7 billion in assets deposited by Jews during the World War II era.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported Wednesday that the majority of $11.5 million in additional funds found in the most recent probe into pre-1945 dormant Swiss accounts of Holocaust victims were at the Swiss Bank Corp.

The funds had gone undiscovered until now because of a filing error.

Yet it was the resurgent Swiss anti-Semitism that remained uppermost in the minds of Jewish officials this week. Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Avraham Burg, who has been closely involved in restitution efforts, said: "I represent another generation of Jews who are living in an independent state.

"I tell you: the Jewish people of today will never let [the Holocaust] happen again."

Still, Singer was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the revelation of the account names has nonetheless "brought the Swiss banking system into the 20th-century transparency mode."

Thomas Lyssy, vice president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, said he welcomed the banks' step, but worried that it came too late for some elderly Holocaust survivors.

"We urge the banks to hurry up" so as many survivors as possible can "profit from the funds," he said.