It only took 50 years...

Yesterday Swiss banks were finally pressured into releasing the names of some of the thousands of Jews who had entrusted money to them before they were killed by the Nazis. It was a day of hope and pain. By Louise Jury
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Kenneth Ward can remember his parents discussing opening a Swiss bank account. They had a comfortable living. His father was a music teacher and organist for the local synagogue. His mother taught, too. For Jews in Frankfurt during the Thirties, Switzerland seemed the safe place to look.

Kenneth didn't know the details. He was 10 when Hitler came to power, and 16 when he was shipped to Britain with the Kindertransport - the mass programme of escape for hundreds of Jewish children - just a week before the Second World War broke out.

His parents and elder brother died in the Chelm concentration camp near Neren, Poland, in 1942. That was the same year that Kenneth changed his name from Wurzburger to Ward and signed up for the British Army. "I didn't want to be called Wurzburger if I was caught by the enemy."

Afterwards, he never gave a thought to the money his parents may have put away. He was a young man making his own way in England, working for Scholl shoes in research and development. In any case, it never occurred to him that there was anything he could do to reclaim the family assets. "It just looked too difficult," he said. "Swiss accounts have always been very confidential - that was why people put their money into them. I had no idea which bank the money was in, or where. How do you start, what do you do?"

It was only in February this year, when international pressure finally started to make dents in the Swiss wall of self-serving, not to say criminal silence, that Mr Ward, with thousands of others, began to think that there may be some chance of retrieving what belonged to him.

Yesterday, the Swiss government having been prevailed upon to lift temporarily their highly secretive banking laws, the Swiss Bankers' Association at last published a list of 1,872 names of non-Swiss residents covering 1,756 separate accounts (some joint) opened before 1945 and untouched since. The list was published in newspapers in 27 countries at the same time. In these accounts lies a total of SFr60.2m (pounds 25m).

The list was also put on to the World Wide Web. Mr Ward opted for Cyberia, the Internet cafe in central London, rather than his own armchair as the place to see whether Wurzburger would be one of the 1,872. To Mr Ward's disappointment, it wasn't. And although there were Hirsches, his mother's maiden name, there was no Gertrude Hirsch.

There are more names to come. The Swiss Bankers' Association has promised to release by October a much larger list, of up to 20,000 pre-1945 dormant account-holders, covering Swiss residents - some of whom may have acted as proxies to hide the assets of Jews threatened by the Nazis.

This is all very welcome, even if decades overdue, but it also raised many questions which will not go away: not least, what have the banks themselves done to track down the account-holders or help others to track them down? The answer is not much. When a smaller list was published earlier this year, it took Jewish campaigners and journalists hours to trace the families of two of them. Be that as it may, why have the Swiss confined themselves to a bald list of names?

Greville Janner, the former Labour MP, chairs the Holocaust Educational Trust, which has spearheaded the British campaign for action. "They must have more information," he said. "No Swiss bank will just take money on the basis of a person's name."

The dates when accounts were opened, the dates of birth of account-holders and other such details might provide significant clues for families with no clear knowledge of what accounts their parents or grandparents held. Names on the list such as Muller and Weiss are not uncommon.

Mr Janner himself may even benefit. He shrieked excitedly as he noticed a Jannez on the list yesterday. "That's my family's name," he said. His family were Lithuanian and Latvian. Only the ones in Denmark survived. "Wouldn't it be funny if I had money I didn't know about?" Few have done more to disconcert the Swiss banking community than this sharp-witted QC. He has made four visits to Switzerland since last autumn as revelation upon revelation has come out of the country.

The question of Nazi gold - money looted by the Nazis from the countries they invaded, and held in Switzerland during the war - is a separate issue, but has become associated in the public mind with the question of individual dormant accounts. Both issues have tarnished the reputation of a nation that has prided itself on its probity. The result has been the biggest crisis in Swiss foreign policy since the war.

The Swiss were initially dismissive; now they are defensive. At the annual meeting of the Swiss Bankers' Association two years ago, members had barely a word to say on the emerging scandal. This year, they made noises of contrition. Yesterday, they announced action. Dr Georg Krayer, the association's chairman, gave details of a "global communications campaign" and promised that they would be as helpful as possible towards possible claimants. "In launching this unprecedented effort to find the rightful owners of dormant accounts, we are reaching out to all four corners of the world to find the owners and help them to resolve their claims in a fair, equitable and expeditious manner," he said. "We want to assure all claimants that they will be treated with sensitivity and respect and that everything has been done to make this process as simple and fair as possible."

Whereas in the past, families were repeatedly blocked by demands for documents they did not have - including, in some notorious cases, death certificates for people killed in Auschwitz - the burden of proof will be made more flexible. The accountancy firm Ernst & Young has been engaged to distribute an information kit to claimants. The claims themselves will be assessed not by the banks but by the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons, set up by the banks to investigate their behaviour under Paul Volcker, the former head of the American Federal Reserve.

Despite suspicions that the banks are making a late and desperate attempt at damage limitation, sprucing up the image in the face of American threats of boycotts, the fact remains that many families are likely to benefit.

Max Tuchmann, of Blackburn, Lancashire, thinks it unlikely he has a claim, but will be investigating whether a company on the list, Tuchmann Ltd of London, had anything to do with his father, Hans, who fled Germany in 1938.

Fiona Goetz, the 59-year-old widow of the Punch cartoonist Walter Goetz, was astounded to find her late husband on the list yesterday with his parents named as having power of attorney. "It must have been an account opened by them for him," she said. "I have no idea how much money there is, or whether I will claim it. It has come as an enormous surprise, and I really don't know what I will do, though I will probably write to seek further details."

Yet the news was tinged with sadness. In a sentiment echoed by many, she said the accounts should have been dealt with long ago, when it would have affected people more. "There must have been a lot of people who needed the money in the years after the war."

For Mr Janner, this is the tragedy that he will not let the banks forget. It is some consolation that they are acting now, but for many it is too little, too late. Never one to pull his punches, he adopts a Churchillian phrase to sum up the situation: "In the history of banking, never has so much been owed by so few to so many"n

The Web address where dormant accounts have been published is http://www.dormantaccounts.ch. Those with questions on claiming can ring freephone 0800 7310451.

Further reading from Virgin Net

Simon Wiesenthal Centre

http://www.wiesenthal.com/swiss/index.htm

Listen to speeches from the research centre's recent conference. Fill out and submit a form if you believe yourself to have a legitimate claim on the gold. Access a database of Swiss bank accounts frozen during the Second World War.

Swiss Private Banking: Nazi Gold, Swiss Banks

http://www.swiss-private-banking.com/a01-07.htm

Full (and fascinating) text of the testimony of Hans J Baer, of the Swiss Bankers Association, to the United States Senate in 1996. Includes, as Exhibit A, a table of all the Swiss bank accounts opened by foreigners before May 1945 that lay dormant until at least 1985.

http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/pr97004.htm

Is there any Nazi looted gold in the Bank of England? Only a potential 3,565kg.

http://www.nara.gov/nara/research/nazigold.html

In the past year, more than a hundred researchers have been studying the US government's "Safehaven" archives for clues about Nazi gold. This is the Assistant Chief Librarian's report.

www.virgin.net

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