TEL AVIV — Swiss banks are striving to resolve the issue of Holocaust victims' bank deposits.
Top officials of major Swiss banks have agreed to appoint an independent arbitrator who will ensure that deposits are transferred to the depositors' rightful heirs, according to the Jerusalem Report magazine. The banks will reportedly issue an official announcement in the near future.
Media in Israel and elsewhere have reported that a great deal of money belonging to Holocaust victims is still lodged in Swiss bank accounts.
So far, Swiss banks have refused to release the deposits to relatives of the deceased without proper documentation and accurate account numbers, much of which vanished during and after the war.
Estimates of these accounts, deposited during World War II, range from tens of millions of dollars to nearly $7 billion.
But the Swiss Bankers Association, the industry's leading organization, said the estimates are highly inflated.
"Recent numbers named by various parties in the press in reference to the amount of unclaimed assets from the Nazi era are massively exaggerated," the organization said.
In the past, Swiss banks strongly opposed the appointment of an independent arbitrator to mediate between the banks and relatives of Holocaust victims.
The banks had argued that attempts to help relatives provide documentation would violate the strict secrecy laws that distinguish the Swiss banking system.
But persistent media attention sparked members of the Swiss Bankers Association to meet in early July to discuss the matter and the damage it caused to their image.
According to Jewish banker Hans Baer, director general of the Swiss bank Julius Baer and Co., the banks' decision to appoint an independent arbitrator was unanimous.
Baer admitted that lists of Holocaust victims' bank accounts, assembled in the 1960s, were incomplete.
But he denied allegations that the banks stole money belonging to Jews.
"The money is just lying in the banks," Baer said.