News Analysis: Release of Bank List Produces Some Surprises, Confirmations

Switzerland’s long-awaited “list” produced more than just names on dormant Swiss bank accounts.

It also confirmed many of the allegations leveled at Swiss banks during the past year while, at the same time, revealing several new historical twists.

In a dramatic waiver of Switzerland’s tradition of bank secrecy, the Swiss Bankers Association last week published the names of some 1,800 dormant accounts in major newspapers around the world and on the Internet.

The list was released following months of international pressure to aid the search for assets deposited during the Holocaust era.

What immediately jumps out is the discrepancy between the number of accounts found and the number the bankers previously said turned up after a comprehensive search of their records.

In testimony last fall before a U.S. congressional panel, representatives of the Swiss Bankers Association said they could only locate 775 accounts worth about $32 million.

The accounts published last week have an estimated total value of $42 million, according to George Krayer, president of the Swiss Bankers Association.

Jewish groups have charged that Swiss banks are holding up to $7 billion in assets deposited by Jews during the World War II era.

“It has demonstrated that there are at least three times as many dormant accounts as the Swiss bankers admitted to last year,” Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said of the list. “It goes right to their credibility.”

The publication of the list also produced several surprises:

The list includes names of several top-ranking Nazis and Nazi sympathizers, including members of Hitler’s Nazi elite.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center said one account is believed to have belonged to Hermann Schmitz, the chairman of I.G. Farben, the manufacturer of the gas used in concentration camps.

Other names included Willy Bauer, an alias for an aide to Adolf Eichmann, and Kurt Herrmann, a rich publisher who handled jewelry dealings for Hermann Goering. Herrmann apparently played an important role in the sales of stolen jewelry from the Rothschild family.

Madeleine Kunin, U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, said she discovered her mother’s name on the list of dormant accounts. Kunin was 7 years old when her Jewish family, fearing a Nazi invasion, fled Switzerland in 1940. She has begun the process of filing a claim to determine whether it is, in fact, her mother on the list.

The list confirms that Switzerland ignored a 1946 accord with the Allies on the return of Nazi loot. The 1946 Washington Agreement required that the banks thoroughly search their accounts and safe-deposit boxes for assets belonging to Germans, liquidate them and turn over half the proceeds to the Allies to help resettle war refugees, including Jews.

The presence of German depositors on the list shows that the banks did not fulfill their obligations.

Following publication of the list, WJC officials predicted that the end of Swiss bank secrecy was near.

In remarks that were widely publicized in Switzerland, WJC President Edgar Bronfman said last week: “We are going to see Swiss bank secrecy come tumbling down when they publish the names of 20,000 dormant Swiss accounts in October. The effect is going to be electrifying.”

He was referring to the next list of dormant accounts the Swiss banks plan to make public — a listing of accounts opened by Swiss citizens during the World War II era.

Krayer of the Swiss Bankers Association said in an interview that the number of accounts belonging to Swiss holders could reach 100,000.

One Swiss daily paper declared: “Bronfman, the man with the billions, wants to kill our bank secret.”

The revelations about the Nazi accounts, meanwhile, have prompted the Simon Wiesenthal Center to reassess the way it has approached the issue of dormant accounts.

“I think it may have been a mistake in retrospect to place so much emphasis on the dormant accounts of victims and to place so little energy on where the real assets are, which is the perpetrators’ accounts,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

He added, “It’s not logical to believe that the majority of Jews and other victims of Nazism had time to consult with their local Swiss banker, but it is very logical to believe that the elite of the Third Reich and the SS hierarchy were clever enough to begin transferring assets” to safekeeping in Switzerland “when the climate of the war began to change.”

Earlier this year, the Wiesenthal Center submitted to Swiss authorities the names of 334 leading German government and SS officials, bankers, industrialists and art dealers who had the power and wealth to deposit substantial amounts into Swiss banks during World War II.

Hier said the Wiesenthal Center is now calling for a formal investigation into such accounts.

In addition, the backers of a class-action lawsuit filed in New York against Swiss banks on behalf of Holocaust survivors and their heirs have amended the lawsuit in an attempt to go after the accounts of perpetrators as well.

In a related development, Paul Volcker, the former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman, who is heading an independent commission probing dormant Swiss accounts, said the lawsuit could hamper his investigation.

In a letter filed in federal court, Volcker said he was afraid Swiss bankers and other sources might stop cooperating with the commission if the lawsuit resulted in U.S. legal orders to disclose documents and sources.

U.S. District Court Judge Edward Korman was scheduled to hear arguments in New York on Thursday on a demand by Swiss banks that the suit be put on hold.

But Avraham Burg, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a member of the Volcker commission, condemned the letter.

He wrote to Volcker asking him “to inform the judge immediately that this letter does not represent the opinions of all members of the committee, and at least not mine.”

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