Final report on Swiss banks finds 54,000 accounts of Nazi victims

NEW YORK — The long, sad saga of dormant Holocaust-era accounts in Swiss banks has come to a somewhat inconclusive end.

After hundreds of auditors pored over bank records for three years, a panel overseeing the massive research effort identified nearly 54,000 accounts that may have belonged to victims of the Nazis. It said that about half of them should be published in an effort to find the owners or their rightful heirs.

But there were many more accounts with so little documentation that the teams of researchers were left stymied.

The "whole story" of the panel's work is "what we didn't find," Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress and an alternate on the panel, was quoted as saying Monday, when the report was released.

He was referring to 2 million accounts opened between 1933 and 1945 that lacked almost all traces of documentation.

It will never be known how many of them had been opened by Jews who had believed Swiss banks would provide a safe haven for their funds during the Nazi era.

In its report, the panel found several instances in which individual banks destroyed records pertinent to the investigation. As a result of these findings, Swiss police have begun a criminal probe that may target the banks involved, JTA has learned.

The report did not name the banks.

But because one of the four instances it referred to involved Christoph Meili — a night guard at the Union Bank of Switzerland who in January 1997 made headlines when he rescued sensitive Holocaust-era documents from the bank's shredder — it was clear which "large commercial bank" the report had in mind.

The panel, formally known as the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons and headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, was created by the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the Swiss Bankers Association in May 1996 to investigate the dormant accounts.

Jewish groups had accused the Swiss banks of hoarding the wealth of Holocaust victims.

The accusation not only tarnished Switzerland's long-cherished reputation as a "neutral" country during the war, but it also mushroomed into a hunt for Jewish assets from the Holocaust and Nazi-looted gold that still occupies many Western European nations, the United States, Brazil and Argentina.

The Volcker Commission's report lent credence — based on documentation it found in the records of several, unnamed Swiss banks — to longstanding charges that the banks turned a deaf ear to the needs of Jewish depositors while snapping to the directives issued by officials in Nazi Germany.

In addition, the total number of accounts described in the panel's report far exceeds initial estimates presented by the Swiss banks. In testimony three years ago before a U.S. congressional panel, Swiss Bankers Association representatives said they could only locate 775 accounts worth about $32 million.

Perhaps the most important conclusion of the panel is that it saw no reason to revise the $1.25 billion settlement that Swiss banks agreed to last year to pay Holocaust-era claims.

This provided some relief for Swiss bankers, who had feared that the commission's findings could jeopardize the settlement.

Holocaust victims or their heirs with valid claims to the dormant accounts will be the first to receive funds from that settlement.

However, the newly discovered dormant accounts unearthed by the Volcker panel may influence Judge Edward Korman, who is overseeing the settlement in a New York court, to delay the date when the court-appointed special master, Judah Gribetz, issues his recommendations on how the settlement will be distributed.

Gribetz is slated to make that recommendation Dec. 28, but the date reportedly may have to be pushed back to allow time to factor in the Volcker panel's findings.

During the past three years, the Volcker panel employed some 650 auditors at a cost of about $300 million to comb through the records of 59 Swiss banks.

The commission, which included three Jewish representatives and two alternates, and an equal number of representatives approved by the Swiss Bankers Association, painted a mixed picture of the banks' activities, saying on the one hand that it found "no evidence of systematic destruction" of records.

But the report also said it had "confirmed evidence of questionable and deceitful actions by some individual banks" in handling the accounts of Holocaust victims.

The report recommended waiving Swiss banking secrecy laws to publish the names of 25,187 dormant accounts, though it is not clear whether Swiss bankers will do so. There was not sufficient information about the remainder of the 54,000 accounts it located to merit their publication.

In 1997, two separate lists were published that included some 16,000 names linked to dormant accounts worth about $54.4 million.

Swiss bankers, not surprisingly, were pleased that the commission found no proof that they had systematically destroyed records.

Georg Krayer, president of the Swiss Bankers Association, apologized Monday "for all the disappointments and hurt feelings" caused by the banks' "insufficient" knowledge about the sufferings of Holocaust victims before the controversy erupted four years ago.

But at the same time, he said, "with the exception of a few isolated cases, the banks' conduct during the period in question was correct."

Jewish leaders, however, had a different view of the panel's findings.

"It is a devastating report," said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC. "It confirms the fears of Holocaust survivors and validates their testimony of 50 years, and it is replete with examples of misconduct on the part of the banks."

In Jerusalem, Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial — which provided the names of millions of Holocaust victims to the panel — said the Volcker Commission had "brought a bit of justice into the open, into the light."

A second report on Switzerland's wartime past is also expected to be published soon.

That report, drafted by an international panel of historians known as the Bergier Commission, will focus on Switzerland's treatment of Jewish refugees during World War II.

It is expected to contain a stinging rebuke of the nation's wartime policy toward the refugees.