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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Around the world, relatives seek Swiss bank account claims

JERUSALEM, July 28 (JTA) — When the Swiss Bankers Association published its long-awaited list of dormant World War II-era bank accounts here last week, 82-year-old Dov Haber found what he was looking for. Buried in the tiny print was the name of Haber”s uncle, Hermann Roth, who lived in Vienna before the war. As soon as he saw the name, Haber headed to the Tel Aviv office of Kost, Levary and Forer, the local accounting firm dealing with Holocaust claims. Interviewed outside the office, Haber, a retired bookkeeper, said, “I looked for my uncle after the war. I looked for everyone after the war, including my parents, but there was no one left.”” Haber, who served in the Polish army during World War II before escaping to Switzerland, said he had come to the firm “to find out what happened to my family and what I should do next.”” Haber was one of 500 people in Israel — and one of several thousand worldwide — seeking information about how to obtain possible restitution from the dormant Swiss accounts in the first days after the list of some 1,800 account holders was published in newspapers around the world. The publication of the accounts represents a dramatic overturning of Switzerland”s famed bank secrecy laws. 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. After months of international pressure, the Swiss banks last week unveiled the list of accounts in paid newspaper advertisements in 28 countries. The ad invited claimants to “Please come forward. You will receive prompt and serious attention.”” The response has been strong, and constant. In the international accounting offices of Ernst & Young, the primary firm handling the claims, the phones have been ringing incessantly. In New York, some 3,000 calls have come in since the list was published July 23. Calling the flow “busy, but manageable,”” Michael Freitag, a spokesman for the Swiss Bankers Association, said most of the callers to Ernst & Young were seeking the information kits needed in order to file a claim. And there has been widespread curiosity even among those without any potential claims. But those with possible claims are clearly most affected — even though the amount of the accounts remains a big question mark. In Budapest, the Liub family has been quiet about their discovery that they are heirs to a long-dormant account of Kalman Liub, one of 32 Hungarians on the list. “We don”t want to toast before we kill the bear,”” said Kalman”s great-nephew, Nandor Liub, 77, using an expression that means the family doesn”t want to celebrate prematurely. The Liubs, who are not Jewish, are not alone in wanting to keep quiet. The Hungarian Jews on the list are mostly silent, their fears stoked by decades of Nazi and Communist oppression. Some Hungarian Jews apparently believe that they could be harassed by relatives of the Nazis who appear on the list or by criminals who will attempt extortion. Some are also fearful that upon learning that they have stumbled upon money, friends, or even cash-poor Jewish organizations, may ask them for a loan. According to Tamas Szabo, the coordinator of account claims at Ernst & Young”s Budapest office, which is handling calls mainly from Central and Eastern Europe, many of the would-be applicants have even refused to give his office their telephone numbers for fear of reprisal, a fear he dismissed as “irrational.”” Szabo estimates there have been 220 serious calls to his office since the list was published last week. In Moscow, in contrast, there seemed little fear of reprisals among the Jews examining the list of accounts at Moscow”s Choral Synagogue. It was unlikely that many of the Jews who examined the three pages published in the daily Izvestiya would find names of family members – – only about 30 of the account holders were from the former Soviet Union. One man, who gave his name as Semyon, seemed quite certain that his family held no Swiss bank account. Still, Semyon, a retiree in his 60s, said the publication signified an important step toward justice. “They were killed,”” he said of the account holders, “and the bankers should not benefit from their death.”” And while few of the accounts listed the Soviet Union as the address, tens of thousands of Jews now living in the former Soviet Union were born in Eastern Europe, said Zinoviy Kagan, a leader of Russia”s Reform Jews. Russia”s leading daily financial newspaper, Kommersant Daily, announced a campaign Friday to locate heirs to these Jews. In Israel, the media has been relatively quiet about the story. With the exception of a few features about the list, and the fact that many of those listed are not Jewish, it has devoted itself to other matters. The lack of coverage, however, should not be taken as a barometer of public interest. Last Friday morning, hundreds of people from all walks of life took the time to glance at the claims list, mounted prominently in a storefront window on busy Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. Regardless of whether their families were personally affected by the Holocaust, those interviewed during an informal opinion poll said they expected the Swiss banks to make amends. “We”re from Morocco originally and no one in my family died in the Holocaust,”” said 28-year-old Natalie Shitrit, who recently immigrated to Israel from France. “Even so, I think it”s important that people get what”s rightfully theirs. The Holocaust is part of our collective heritage.”” Edna Blecher, 53, who owns a Jerusalem gift shop, said the publication of the claims list had sparked “an important discussion”” in her household. She said her sons, ages 30 and 26, began asking many questions about the war and how the family was affected by it. “My husband lost some members of his family, and so did my father,”” Blecher said. “It”s not that we kept this a secret, but the list definitely opened up a whole new line of communication.”” While the list — and the issues of compensation surrounding it — has heightened the younger generation”s understanding of the Holocaust, it has also heightened the anxiety level of many Holocaust survivors. According to John Lemberger, director of AMCHA, an organization that provides counseling services to Holocaust survivors, “The list has created a lot of anticipation and apprehension among survivors. “There were expectations based on the media hype. People expected this to be a full and honest disclosure,”” but were disappointed with the numbers and the fact that many of the people on the list weren”t even Jewish. Lemberger said many Holocaust survivors, whether or not they have filed a claim, have been pained by the publicity surrounding the Swiss bank accounts. He said AMCHA therapists around the country have found that the issue of the dormant Swiss accounts has been a “major subject of conversation for the past couple of months.”” Noting that his group has had “an unprecedented number of requests”” for support services, he said, “This kind of thing arouses a lot of unhealed traumas and pain, and you don”t necessarily have to be a holder of a dormant account to feel it.”” Shai Csillag, director general of the Center of Organizations of the Holocaust, said the prevailing emotion among many in his umbrella organization is anger. “Of those who would have benefited most, many are probably not with us anymore,”” said Csillag, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary. “People needed that money while they were alive, and the money could have given them a better life. This list comes 50 years too late.”” (JTA correspondents Michael Jordan and Agnes Bohm in Budapest and Lev Krichevsky in Moscow contributed to this story.)