N.Y. helping U.S. claimants get funds from Swiss accounts

NEW YORK — New York state has opened a Holocaust claims office to help survivors and their families from all over the world reclaim missing Swiss bank accounts.

The office also will handle insurance claims on Eastern European properties confiscated during the Holocaust.

The Holocaust Claims Processing Office can be called toll-free at (800) 695-3318. It has both a Web page (http://www.claims.state.ny.us) and an e-mail address ([email protected]) where questions can be asked.

"We're going to provide assistance to people who believe they have a legitimate claim of assets held in a [Swiss bank] account during World War II," said the state's banking commissioner, Elizabeth McCaul. "We are also working on a plan to take in insurance claims."

She said the Manhattan office's eight-member staff would help individuals fill out forms and help them search for supporting material for their claims.

"They should come and bring whatever information they have, including copies of any letters they have received or anything that was told to them," McCaul said.

In particular, she said, the state wants to help those who paid the Swiss banks to search for a relative's account and, in return, received a letter saying the search failed to locate an account.

The office will not charge for any of its services.

She said New York Gov. George Pataki made $550,000 available to establish the office for one year.

Once a claim is filed, McCaul said her staff would follow up with representatives of the Volcker Commission, an independent group now auditing the books of Swiss banks to determine the extent of dormant accounts opened by Jews during the war years.

"We are also doing searches of our own with the banks," she said, referring to the work of her department with the Swiss banks based in New York during World War II and at least five domestic banks that acted as liaisons for Swiss banks during that time.

In related developments, a Manhattan federal court last month held a hearing on a class-action suit filed by Holocaust survivors against 16 European insurance companies that they claim cheated them of billions of dollars.

Two survivors, Margaret Zentner and Marta Cornell, recently went with their lawyer, Edward Fagan, to the corporate headquarters of the German Allianz Group to press their claims.

Fagan said the families of both women had bought insurance policies from Allianz or its subsidiaries before the war. Zentner's policy was supposed to be paid when she turned 21 or married. Instead, it was paid to the Nazis in 1942, he said, in compliance with German law regarding all Jewish life insurance policies.

New York's city comptroller, Alan Hevesi, said he has encouraged hundreds of officers of public pension funds nationwide to write to Swiss companies of which they are shareholders and encourage them to contribute to the Swiss Holocaust Memorial Fund.

The fund, valued at about $116 million, was created in February with contributions from Switzerland's largest banks and industrial firms to help Holocaust survivors.

Hevesi wrote in July to 27 Swiss companies in which the city retirement system holds 780,720 shares worth more than $462 million.

About a dozen companies have responded and all but one, the hotel and restaurant chain Movenpick, said they had contributed. However, none would reveal the amount.

The officers of Zurich Insurance Co. explained that the contributors had agreed to not reveal the amounts "in order to maintain the character of a gesture of solidarity. Our donation is driven by our spontaneous willingness to do what is possible to mitigate the tremendous suffering caused by the Nazi regime."

A Movenpick executive said the company did not contribute because it was founded after the war.

Hevesi said he was puzzled by the secrecy of those who have contributed.

"I think if they are giving they should be proud of it because they are doing the right thing," he said. "Those who are not giving should be encouraged to do so."

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said he, too, could not understand the decision to "hide behind a veil of secrecy."