U.S. may have helped prevent return of Swiss assets

NEW YORK — The U.S. government and its Allies may have helped prevent the proper return of Holocaust victims' assets that were looted during World War II and hidden in Switzerland.

The suggestion of possible U.S. complicity comes from the World Jewish Congress amid a campaign against the Swiss Bankers Association to locate assets belonging predominantly to Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

WJC and Jewish Agency for Israel officials met this week with the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, which also is investigating the matter. Both groups are involved in an effort to reclaim property and assets lost by Jews in Eastern and Western Europe during and after World War II.

The Jewish officials gave the committee documents related to formerly classified files stored in the U.S. National Archives.

The files show post-World War II American involvement in transferring assets from Nazi-occupied territories in and out of Switzerland, according to the WJC.

According to a letter written last week by the assistant archivist of the National Archives to Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.), who heads the banking committee, the declassified files chronicle a postwar interagency American program to locate the assets.

The operation, code-named "Project Safehaven," was directed by Allen Dulles, who later became the first director of the CIA. It has been kept secret for 50 years, said Israel Singer, WJC secretary general, at a meeting Tuesday of his organization's U.S. section.

According to the letter to D'Amato, parts of which were obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the archives "include a considerable amount of information relating to Allied efforts to identify, track and ultimately block the exporting and hiding of items of value in neutral countries by German Nazis."

The unearthed material raises questions about what the United States and its Allies did — and did not do — with the information they had about the Nazi-looted assets kept in Switzerland after the war, said Elan Steinberg, WJC executive director.

While it appears that these nations tried to block the Nazi profiteering, they did not "facilitate" the proper disposition of the plundered assets, he said.

For his part, Singer said the investigation would expand to cover the "19 other countries where such assets were transferred."

But Jewish organizational researchers are only now beginning to examine the actual files on microfilm, Steinberg said.

He said the files also "will lead to some very pointed questions for the Swiss bankers." Already, they make it clear that the Swiss bankers "cannot give a definitive account of the total assets," despite their claim otherwise, Steinberg said.

The unearthed documentation, he added, "guts their claims and assertions that only 774 dormant accounts are locked in their vaults from the Holocaust period."

The WJC offensive against the Swiss Bankers Association seeks to pressure the bankers to adhere to an earlier agreement to open up the restitution process involving Jewish assets.

The WJC and the bankers group initially agreed to cooperate in an investigation of unclaimed accounts.

However, the bankers dropped that idea and announced unilaterally in February that Swiss banks had some $32 million in as-yet unclaimed accounts that might have belonged to victims of the Nazis.

The WJC rejected the bankers' conclusion and announced that it was considering leading a boycott against Swiss banks.

The WJC executive committee will take action on the boycott proposal in a month, Steinberg said. The proposal "is modeled on the disinvestment policy that had been waged against the apartheid government of South Africa," he added.

As part of its inquiry, the Senate Banking Committee sent a letter to the bankers association's lawyers with some 15 questions about the group's banking practices, Steinberg said.

According to a press release from his office, D'Amato has contacted the secretary of state, the CIA director, the secretary of the Treasury and the archivist of the United States as part of this inquiry.

The Swiss banks' premium on privacy and the difficulty of producing proof of ownership of an account that once belonged to a Holocaust victim have made it difficult for descendants to identify or claim assets.

Compounding the difficulties in the restitution process, a leading Swiss bank may have destroyed its 1944 business records, according to documents located in the formerly secret Romanian intelligence agency that were made public in late February by the WJC.

"If wartime bank records were deliberately destroyed by a Swiss bank, the assertion by the Swiss Bankers Association that they can give a definitive presentation of dormant accounts is refuted," the WJC said in a statement.