Swiss bank accounts for Jews a myth

Swiss Holocaust cash revealed to be myth

MOST dormant Swiss bank accounts thought to have belonged to Holocaust survivors were opened by wealthy, non-Jewish people who then forgot about their money.

The announcement marks the end of a four-year independent investigation into the archives and vaults of the world’s most secretive banking system. It will come as a disappointment to many Jewish families, who were sure that their dead relatives left behind fortunes in Switzerland.

A 17-member tribunal based in Zurich was set up in 1997 to investigate the identities of 5,500 foreign accounts and 10,000 Swiss accounts that have lain dormant since the end of the Second World War.

The tribunal said that it had processed about 10,000 claims in response to the list of dormant account names published by the Swiss Bankers’ Association five years ago. Only 200 accounts — containing £6.9 million — could be traced to Holocaust victims.

“It was a very difficult and often sad process,” Alexander Jolles, the secretary-general of the Independent Claims Tribunal, said. “When we first set up the tribunal, we were sure that nearly all these accounts would be those of Nazi victims. But few were.”

Seventy-nine per cent of the accounts declared dormant by the Swiss banks were traced to wealthy families who had lost trace of their money.

One French family told researchers that they had simply forgotten about the SwFr200,000 placed in a Swiss account before the war.

Mr Jolles said that many of the accounts were small, with only 5 per cent containing more than SwFr100,000 (£42,300). About half contained less than SwFr1,000 and a third held less than SwFr100. The smallest contained SwFr0.08.

“I would guess that the holders withdrew money from them during the war and then left a small sum in them, which was subsequently forgotten about,” he said. “These people were not poor. They were pretty much the same sort of people who would put their money in Swiss bank accounts today.

“The biggest groups were French and Americans, but there were also Italians, Germans and others. Some were no doubt aristocrats, but by no means all.”

The biggest account was a securities investment containing SwF4 million that was handed to a wealthy southern European family. “Two generations had gone by and the descendants who are alive today had lost trace of this money. It had just gone on growing in the meantime.”

Many of the accounts were opened in the 1920s when Switzerland was seen, as it still is, as a haven in a troubled world. In 1936, a large number of French aristocrats and industrialists placed money there after a radical left-wing Government came to power. At least one account dated from the 19th century.

Claims were filed for about half the 5,570 foreign-owned accounts discovered. “In prewar days, a hotel address was sufficient to open an account,” Mr Jolles said. “So finding the truth was extremely difficult.

“We had claimants from 70 different countries speaking more than 15 different languages, and co-ordinating these people and drawing up their family trees has been a complicated business. Sometimes we had 125 people claiming the same account. Since there was no way of distinguishing between them, the banks had to pay out to all of them.”

Switzerland came under heavy criticism in 1997-98 for its reluctance to consider wartime claims. The United States threatened it with sanctions and relatives of Holocaust victims launched class action lawsuits in the US.

The Swiss banks agreed to a settlement of $1.5 billion (£1.03 billion) on the understanding that they would be spared further Holocaust claims. The banks say they will pay the costs of tracking down the dormant accounts from their own coffers.


Times of London | OCTOBER 13 2001