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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Rising anti-Semitism casts shadow over publication of Swiss accounts

ZURICH, July 23 (JTA) — Concerns about rising anti-Semitism in Switzerland have cast a pall over the much-publicized release of the names on dormant accounts from the Nazi era. “Keep your money. The lists published today are not important if the 18,000-member Jewish minority of this country should suffer from anti-Semitism,” Israel Singer, the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, said during a news conference Wednesday. Singer’s statement came on the day the Swiss Bankers Association published the names of some 1,750 dormant accounts in major newspapers in 27 countries including the United States, Israel, France, Russia and Australia. Singer spoke at a news conference called by the Swiss Bankers Association to announce the publication of the accounts, a move that many observers believe would never have happened without the strong international pressure that was spearheaded over the past two years by Jewish leaders and U.S. government officials. The recent rise of anti-Semitic incidents in Switzerland is widely viewed here as a backlash to the Jewish efforts. The publication of the accounts represent a dramatic overturning of Switzerland’s famed bank secrecy laws. It is also an ironic twist of history: Switzerland enacted the laws in 1934 to help Jews who were fearful of Nazi reprisals place money in numbered accounts that would ensure the anonymity of depositors. But after the war, the heirs to many of those accounts got snared by a host of banking technicalities that made the task of recovering family assets virtually impossible. Many of the heirs lost their relatives to the Nazi genocide. The names and last known address of the account holders were printed in fine print on two pages of The New York Times on Wednesday. The ad invited claimants to “Please come forward. You will receive prompt and serious attention.” One of the non-Jewish names on the list sparked astonishment in some quarters. Dr. Hans Wendland of Germany was the “mastermind in the trafficking of looted art between France and Switzerland,” according to WJC’s executive director, Elan Steinberg, who said the name “jumped out” when WJC officials were scanning the list. “He was a notorious figure,” Steinberg said, adding, “assuming it is the same Hans Wendland.” The ads direct prospective claimants to contact the offices of the international accounting firm Ernst & Young, which will be processing inquiries at their branches in New York, Tel Aviv, Sydney, Australia Basel, Switzerland, and Budapest. The ads list telephone numbers for the offices, as well as a form for requesting an information kit about the claims process. Arbitrators will “evaluate claims under a relaxed standard of proof,” the ad says. “Claims to published accounts will be resolved as soon as possible with a deadline of one year.” The list, along with request forms, is also available on the World Wide Web: The accounts listed were opened by non-Swiss citizens. Another list of accounts opened by Swiss citizens, many of whom may have acted as proxies for Jews fearful of reprisals, is slated to be released in the fall. Most of the depositors on the list released Wednesday had addresses in Germany, France and Austria; many of them had surnames that were likely of Jewish origin. A spokesman at the Ernst & Young office in Basel reported a heavy response on the first day the ad appeared. “We had high traffic, and the numbers in various countries have been busy all day long,” the spokesman said Wednesday. In Budapest, the head of the auditing firm said that on the first day the list was published, there were calls not only from Hungary, but also from Russia, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. “Every five minutes there is a call, and we have already found one Hungarian person” who has a basis for filing a claim, Tamas Szabo said. But he would not release the name. The accounts published this week have a total value of $42 million, George Krayer, president of the Swiss Bankers Association, told the news conference announcing the accounts. Representatives of the association, in testimony last fall before a U.S. congressional panel, had said they could only locate 775 accounts that were worth about $32 million. Jewish groups have charged that Swiss banks are holding up to $7 billion in assets deposited by Jews during the World War II era. At the news conference, Singer called on the members of the Swiss government and leading opinion makers to be more outspoken in condemning the rising tide of resentment against the Swiss Jewish community, a trend that has become increasingly evident in recent months. “It is not money alone that we have come for, it is the issue of moral restitution,” Singer said. “We want to hear your voices,” he added. “We know that the Jewish people in this country are again afraid. If this is the price of our efforts to bring justice to the Holocaust victims, I feel shame for the Swiss people.” Singer’s call was seconded by Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Avraham Burg, who has been closely involved in restitution efforts. “I represent another generation of Jews who are living in an independent state. I tell you: The Jewish people of today will never let it happen again,” Burg said, referring to the Holocaust. In New York, Steinberg of the WJC stressed that the Swiss “have to fight anti-Semitism and turn over the money.” “The Swiss government is responsible for the safety of the Jewish community,” Steinberg said, adding that the Jews there “will not be held hostage for this money.” In Washington, the Swiss ambassador to the United States, Alfred Defago, said in a telephone interview that his government was committed to fighting anti-Semitism with “no ifs, ands or buts.” “If there is a rising tide of anti-Semitism, we should fight it very clearly,” he said. “We will do everything we can to combat anti- Semitism and every form of racism in Switzerland.” Responding to the publication of the lists, Thomas Lyssy, vice president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, said he welcomed the banks’ step, but worried that it came too late for some elderly Holocaust survivors. “We urge the banks to hurry up” so as many as possible can “profit from the funds,” he said. But Gerhart Riegner, honorary vice president of the World Jewish Congress, was skeptical. “I do not believe the Swiss banks anymore. They lied too much,” said Riegner, who in 1942 issued an urgent cable warning of the Holocaust. “Maybe it is a new start, but I doubt it,” Riegner said. (Contributing to this report were JTA Editor Lisa Hostein and Foreign Editor Mitchell Danow in New York, and correspondent Agnes Bohm in Budapest.)