WASHINGTON (Jan. 23)
The World Jewish Congress is looking for the heirs of 53 Polish Holocaust victims whose Swiss bank accounts were declared ownerless and turned over to the Polish government after World War II.
Switzerland last week released a detailed list of the account holders, many of whom died in Nazi death camps.
The move is significant because it marks the first time that the Swiss government has handed over the names of Swiss bank accounts belonging to Jews from the Holocaust era.
The search for the heirs of Polish Holocaust victims comes as Poland and the United States move forward on an unprecedented joint project to construct a major Holocaust memorial at a site of a Nazi death camp in Poland.
The release of the list followed an official Swiss report issued last month showing that Switzerland used dormant Jewish accounts to pay Poland 464,000 Swiss francs in 1975. The money — worth between $4 million and $5 million today — was transferred under a pact that settled Swiss claims for property seized by Poland’s postwar Communist regime.
“These assets were illegally and immorally seized by the Swiss government, and then illegally and immorally transferred to the Communist Polish regime,” said Kalman Sultanik, vice president of the WJC.
Switzerland never supplied the account holders’ names at the time, and Poland simply deposited the money into its treasury without searching for heirs.
The list, released this week by the WJC, cites heirs for many of the account holders, as well as contact addresses in such cities as Paris, New York and Haifa, Israel.
Switzerland began reviewing its pact with Poland — as well as a similar deal with Hungary — after U.S. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) accused Bern of using unclaimed Jewish accounts to pay off Swiss citizens whose assets were seized by the Communists after the war.
Thomas Borer, head of a Swiss task force on the country’s wartime financial role, said Switzerland also intends to ask Hungary to provide a similar list of Jewish account holders. Bern agreed to pay Hungary 325,000 francs in 1975 under a similar arrangement, which is worth between $3 million and $4 million today.
After Switzerland’s decision to release the once-secret list of names, Sultanik hailed it as “a very positive step” and commended the Polish government, which, he said, “pressed the Swiss government very hard on this issue.”
Meanwhile, the joint U.S.-Polish Holocaust monument will be built at Belzec, south of the city of Lublin in eastern Poland, where an estimated 600,000 Jews were murdered.
A small memorial erected in the 1960s has been falling apart from neglect, and the area around it is overgrown with weeds and strewn with garbage. The monument also does not mention that nearly all those killed there were Jews.
When some family members of victims of Belzec complained about the decaying site, officials from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum began working with Polish authorities to construct a new memorial. A panel of Polish and American experts will choose a design this spring.
“Belzec neither has a proper monument nor is very often visited,” said Jacek Nowakowski, director of collections and acquisitions at the museum, who lost family members at Belzec.
“We are hoping that” the Belzec memorial “will be as important and as poignant as the monument in Treblinka,” he said, referring to what is widely regarded as the most moving concentration camp memorial.
Those seeking more information about the Swiss bank accounts belonging to Polish Holocaust victims can write to the World Jewish Congress, Attn: Polish Account Claim, 501 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022.