Progress seen on returning Swiss assets to survivors

Jewish leaders and Swiss bankers made progress in a meeting last week on the controversial accounts, which recently became public.

Switzerland, known for its banks' premium on privacy, issued a decree in 1962 making it possible to relax that privacy temporarily in order to find victims' accounts and distribute assets to the proper heirs.

Despite the decree, Swiss banks refused to release the deposits to relatives lacking proper documentation and accurate account numbers, much of which vanished during and after the war years.

"I want my country to show civil courage," said Swiss citizen Verena Grandelmeier, who brought the issue before the Swiss parliament earlier this year. "I regret that Switzerland did not do all it could in the '60s, when [many] actual victims were yet alive."

"We have to safeguard Switzerland's reputation as a banking country," added Grandelmeier.

Gerhard Riegner of the World Jewish Congress office in Geneva said that neither the worldwide Jewish community nor Israel applied sufficient pressure on Swiss banks in 1962.

He recalled the case of a Jewish man from Frankfurt who set up an account before the war. The man died in the Holocaust. When family members eventually went to claim his funds, the Swiss demanded a death certificate and proof that these were the account-holder's rightful heirs.

It was an impossible task in the wake of the war, Riegner said.

An Israeli lawyer who came to Switzerland after the war said he represented Holocaust victims who wanted their money and assets returned.

"It was and is extremely difficult to prove [that a] family had accounts and assets," the lawyer said.

He told the story of a Warsaw industrialist who had a secret Swiss bank account during World War II. After this man and his family made their way to safety in Switzerland, he died of a heart attack.

The family did not have his account number and did not know in which bank he had placed the account. Consequently, the lawyer said, the industrialist's family never saw any of his money.

According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency article dated 1963, the Swiss Consulate in New York was then flooded with inquiries from people who often had few if any details about the accounts they sought.

Between 1962 and 1973, only $9 million from Jewish accounts in Switzerland was reportedly given out.

The documentation problem still exists, but Jewish officials are working with Swiss bankers to address some of those issues.

The Swiss Bankers Association announced Sept. 12 that $34.1 million has been found in what may be secret accounts of Holocaust victims, and suggested that more funds might still be uncovered. Some of those funds could belong to non-Jews.

Swiss Attorney General Carla del Ponte said that she believes more victims' accounts reside in Swiss banks.

In the recent announcement, the bankers — who have responded to increasingly intense pressure from Israel, Jewish groups and survivors — said an independent office would be set up to help relatives of Holocaust victims search for accounts.

The association also said Switzerland would refrain from invoking its 10-year statute of limitations on dormant accounts.

Bankers met with a Jewish delegation last week that included Swiss Jewish community members, WJC president Edgar Bronfman and Avraham Burg, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Bronfman and Burg expressed satisfaction with the talks.

A follow-up meeting between the bankers and the Jewish officials is scheduled for October, Bronfman said.