Swiss bankers released details Tuesday in Bern of their plan to return accounts of Holocaust victims to their rightful heirs.
The announcement came as world Jewish leaders held a conference at the European Parliament in Brussels to discuss issues on the agenda of European Jewry, specifically questions of restitution.
“We are seeking to write the closing chapter on the tragic history of the Holocaust,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress.
The European Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Restitution Organization co- sponsored the meeting at the European Parliament, the legislative arm of the European Union. Parliament leaders also were to attend the conference.
Jewish officials were scheduled to meet Thursday with the Swiss Bankers Association “to begin deliberations on the necessary next steps” to return funds held in Swiss accounts, Steinberg said in an interview.
At a news conference Tuesday, Swiss bankers said they have found tens of millions of dollars in their vaults that could be from secret accounts of Jews killed in the Holocaust.
In a survey of a dozen banks this year, 893 pre-1945 accounts that belonged to Holocaust victims may have been found, the bankers association said.
The bankers association reportedly added that the accounts, which need further investigation, are worth $34 million, after the addition of interest and reductions for fees and taxes.
Others have estimated higher totals, peaking at nearly $7 billion.
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.
Other steps taken by the bankers association include the following: * The association will set up an office under the independent Swiss banking ombudsman to assist with searches. * Banks will refrain from invoking Switzerland’s 10- year statute of limitations on dormant accounts.
The association made no reference to deposits made by Nazis who stole assets from Jews and other Nazi victims.
Earlier this year, Switzerland formally apologized for the first time for its treatment of Jews during World War II.
In addition to seeking a resolution to the Swiss bank accounts issue, Jewish groups are seeking “broad-based, forceful support on efforts of restitution” from Central and Eastern European nations, Steinberg said.
The United States has been exemplary in its support of the restitution effort, he said.
In a Sept. 8 letter to WJC President Edgar Bronfman, President Clinton wrote, “As the democracies of Europe and America seek to build a new and better world for the 21st century, we must confront and, as best we can, right the terrible injustices of the past.”
He also said in the letter that he supports the efforts to “resolve the question of Jewish properties confiscated during and after the Second World War.”
Jewish leaders were to meet with French President Jacques Chirac on Friday to further their efforts in Europe, Steinberg said.
Jewish officials met Monday with Belgian Premier Jean-Luc Dehaene.
Dehaene expressed his “full support” of the restitution “endeavor,” which he called a “moral struggle.”