Anxious heirs scan Swiss lists for what to do next

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JERUSALEM — When the Swiss Bankers Association published its long-awaited list of dormant World War II-era bank accounts here last week, 82-year-old Dov Haber found what he was looking for.

Buried in the tiny print was the name of Haber's uncle, Hermann Roth, who lived in Vienna before the war.

So Haber headed to the Tel Aviv office of Kost, Levary and Forer, the local accounting firm dealing with Holocaust claims.

"I looked for my uncle after the war. I looked for everyone after the war, including my parents, but there was no one left," Haber, a retired bookkeeper, said.

Haber, who served in the Polish army during World War II before escaping to Switzerland, said he wanted "to find out what happened to my family and what I should do next."

He was among 500 people in Israel — and several thousand worldwide — trying to find out how they might obtain restitution from the dormant Swiss accounts in the first days after the list of some 1,800 account holders was published in newspapers worldwide.

The publication of the accounts represents a dramatic overturning of Switzerland's famed bank secrecy laws. It also confirmed many of the allegations leveled at Swiss banks during the past year, and revealed new historical twists.

What immediately jumps out is the discrepancy between the number of accounts found and the amount the bankers had earlier said turned up after a search of their records.

Representatives of the Swiss Bankers Association told a U.S. congressional panel last fall they could only find 775 accounts worth about $32 million. But the accounts made public last week total an estimated $42 million, according to George Krayer, president of the Swiss Bankers Association.

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

"It has demonstrated that there are at least three times as many dormant accounts as the Swiss bankers admitted to last year," Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said of the list.

Among surprises in the list:

*Names of several top-ranking Nazis and Nazi sympathizers, including members of Hitler's Nazi elite.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center said one account is believed to have belonged to Hermann Schmitz, the chairman of I.G. Farben, the manufacturer of the gas used in concentration camps.

Other names include Willy Bauer, an alias for an aide to Adolf Eichmann, and Kurt Herrmann, a rich publisher who handled jewelry dealings for Hermann Goering. Herrmann apparently played an important role in the sales of stolen jewelry from the Rothschild family.

*The discovery by Madeleine Kunin, U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and former Vermont governor, of her mother's name on the list of dormant accounts.

Kunin was 7 years old when her Jewish family, fearing a Nazi invasion, fled Switzerland in 1940. She has begun the process of filing a claim to determine whether it is, in fact, her mother on the list.

*Confirmation that Switzerland ignored a 1946 accord with the Allies on the return of Nazi loot.

The 1946 Washington Agreement required that the banks thoroughly search their accounts and safe-deposit boxes for assets belonging to Germans, liquidate them and turn over half the proceeds to the Allies to help resettle war refugees, including Jews.

The presence of German depositors on the list shows that the banks did not fulfill their obligations.

Following publication of the list, WJC officials predicted that the end of Swiss bank secrecy was near.

In remarks that were widely publicized in Switzerland, WJC President Edgar Bronfman said last week: "We are going to see Swiss bank secrecy come tumbling down when they publish the names of 20,000 dormant Swiss accounts in October. The effect is going to be electrifying."

He was referring to the next list of dormant accounts the Swiss banks plan to make public — a listing of accounts opened by Swiss citizens during the World War II era.

Krayer of the Swiss Bankers Association said in an interview that the number of accounts belonging to Swiss holders could reach 100,000.

One Swiss daily paper declared: "Bronfman, the man with the billions, wants to kill our bank secret."

Switzerland enacted its bank secrecy 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 response to the publication of the bank account lists has been strong, and constant. In the international accounting offices of Ernst & Young, the primary firm handling the claims, the phones have been ringing nonstop.

In New York, some 3,000 calls have come in since the list was published July 23. Michael Freitag, a spokesman for the Swiss Bankers Association, said most of the callers to Ernst & Young were seeking the information kits needed to file a claim.

In Hungary, meanwhile, Jews on the list are remaining largely silent, their fears stoked by decades of Nazi and Communist oppression. Some apparently believe they could be harassed by relatives of the Nazis who appear on the list or by criminals bent on extortion.

Some are also fearful that upon learning hhhhhthat they have stumbled upon money, friends or even cash-poor Jewish organizations may ask them for a loan.

According to Tamas Szabo, the coordinator of account claims at Ernst & Young's Budapest office, which has fielded 220 serious calls, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe, many of the would-be applicants have even refused to give their telephone numbers for fear of reprisal.

But in Moscow, there seemed little fear of reprisal among the Jews examining the list of accounts at Moscow's Choral Synagogue.

It was unlikely that many of the Jews who examined the lists published in the daily Izvestiya would find names of family members — only about 30 of the account holders were from the former Soviet Union.

In Israel, the media has been relatively quiet about the story. With the exception of a few feature stories about the list, and the fact that many of those listed are not Jewish, it has devoted itself to other matters.

Still, on Friday morning of last week, hundreds of people from all walks of life studied a claims list mounted in a storefront window on busy Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem.

Edna Blecher, 53, who owns a Jerusalem gift shop, said the publication of the claims list had sparked "an important discussion" in her household.

The list has also heightened the anxiety level of many Holocaust survivors.

"There were expectations based on the media hype. People expected this to be a full and honest disclosure," said John Lemberger, director of AMCHA, an organization that provides counseling services to Holocaust survivors.

Lemberger said, however, that survivors were disappointed with the length of the list and the fact that many of the people weren't even Jewish.

In the meantime, the revelations about the Nazi accounts have prompted the Simon Wiesenthal Center to reassess the way it has approached the issue of dormant accounts.

"I think it may have been a mistake in retrospect to place so much emphasis on the dormant accounts of victims and to place so little energy on where the real assets are, which is the perpetrators' accounts," Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

"It's not logical to believe that the majority of Jews and other victims of Nazism had time to consult with their local Swiss banker, but it is very logical to believe that the elite of the Third Reich and the SS hierarchy were clever enough to begin transferring assets" to safekeeping in Switzerland "when the climate of the war began to change."

Earlier this year, the Wiesenthal Center gave Swiss authorities the names of 334 leading German government and SS officials, bankers, industrialists and art dealers who had the power and wealth to deposit substantial amounts into Swiss banks during World War II.

Hier said the Wiesenthal Center is now calling for a formal investigation into such accounts.

The backers of a class-action lawsuit filed in New York against Swiss banks on behalf of Holocaust survivors and their heirs have amended the lawsuit in an attempt to go after the accounts of perpetrators as well.

Paul Volker, the former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman who is heading an independent probe into the Swiss accounts, said the suit could hamper his investigation.

Volker said he feared Swiss bankers might stop cooperating with investigators if the suit forced them to disclose documents and sources.

But Jewish Agency for Israel chairman Avraham Burg, a member of the Volcker panel, strongly disputed the chairman's comments.