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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Search for Swiss accounts spurs Jewish group to settle its record

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 18 (JTA) — Spurred in part by the search for dormant Jewish accounts in Swiss banks, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has begun looking at its own wartime financial transactions in the hopes of providing a complete historical accounting. JDC provided massive relief and rescue operations during World War II — all with the help of European Jews who loaned money to the humanitarian organization. Half a century later, it is conducting an exhaustive analysis of its records to determine whether all those loans were repaid. Through its field representatives in Poland, Belgium, France and other occupied countries, JDC played a critical role saving Jews from the hands of the Nazis. In addition to helping Jews get out of Nazi-occupied Europe, JDC helped feed children and the elderly in ghettos and orphanages and provided medical services and other emergency assistance. The lending operation was crucial to JDC’s efforts, which is credited with saving more than 400,000 Jews. As an American organization, JDC was barred from transferring currency to areas under enemy occupation. The organization instead sought loans from individual Jews living in Nazi-occupied Europe who were trying to get their money out to the free world. The loans were made with the understanding that the lenders would be reimbursed when they arrived in free territory. During and after the war, numerous survivors came forward to be reimbursed, though JDC officials say it remains unclear exactly how many lenders there were, how many came forward and what the total sum of the loans were. Many never came forward, and it was assumed that those lenders had died during the Holocaust. For years, JDC believed it had settled most outstanding debts. But now, officials say they will delve into masses of files scattered in Israel, Switzerland and the United States to determine whether some of those lenders indeed survived, but for some reason did not come forward to be reimbursed. “JDC should meet these debts of honor if we find people we owe money to,” said Michael Schneider, JDC’s executive vice president. The search through 50-year-old records is likely to be daunting. Many of the lists kept by the organization’s representatives were lost or destroyed during the war, and many of the representatives themselves were killed by the Nazis. As it was, some lenders who sought reimbursement were only able to produce handwritten notes on cigarette boxes or wrinkled pieces of paper. An independent research committee, headed by Yitzchak Arad, former chairman of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, will soon be appointed. Schneider said the committee would prepare a report over the course of the next year, after which point JDC leadership would determine what steps might be appropriate. The historical accounting comes as Switzerland has found itself embroiled in an unyielding controversy surrounding its handling of Jewish assets from the Holocaust era. Following revelations that Swiss banks may still be holding untold millions in dormant Jewish bank accounts, opened by people who thought their money would be safe, Schneider said JDC officials decided “we just better have a look ourselves” at possible outstanding debts. While the chances of tracking down lenders may be slim, JDC hopes that the search will at least help provide a sense of closure to what Schneider calls “a story of death and disease and disaster and desperation on the part of our people working behind the Nazi lines.” In that respect, Schneider said, it could also serve as a powerful historical reminder of JDC’s courageous rescue and relief efforts, which some historians credit with having done more to help the Jews of Europe than all the countries of the world combined. “It doesn’t do any harm for our kids and grandchildren to know a little history,” he said.

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