Banks urged to reveal Holocaust account details

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The Independent Online
British banks are being urged to follow the example of their Swiss counterparts and publish details of accounts into which Holocaust victims deposited their assets for safekeeping before the war.

Research by the Holocaust Educational Trust, published today, concludes that there may be as much as pounds 700m, at current values, lying in dormant accounts in British banks, merchant banks and other financial institutions.

The report also says that the Government made it virtually impossible for survivors to reclaim their money after the war, by drawing up rigid rules that were unsympathetically enforced.

Lord Janner, chairman of the trust, called yesterday for a list to be published of all the original account holders and for the funds to be returned, with interest, to their descendants.

He has written to Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, urging action, and plans to raise the matter at a meeting of the World Jewish Restitution Organisation in New York this week.

"I have asked the Government and the banks to make full disclosure and restitution so far as it is possible," Lord Janner said yesterday. "There is still time to make amends."

According to a Granada Television World In Action programme tonight, British banks have started examining their records. The Government has also begun its own investigation.

Britain, together with Switzerland and the United States, was regarded as a safe haven for Jewish assets.

The research was carried out after the trust was contacted by Holocaust survivors and their families who had read about the Swiss banking scandal and believed they had claims in Britain.

Its report says unpublished public records show that funds deposited here by Jews from Germany, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, frozen during the war, were then used to repay British trade creditors of those countries.

Responsibility for reimbursing the account holders was transferred by treaty to post-war Communist governments, although the British authorities knew that they would not honour the commitment. Bank accounts of other European Jews were simply unfrozen, with little prospect that the money would be claimed.

When claims were made, the British government insisted on proof that account holders had suffered Nazi persecution before releasing the funds.

Many were rejected because there was insufficient evidence of the death of a parent in a concentration camp. People who had been in labour camps, or marooned in Communist countries after the war, were turned down.

Relatives of one woman, Alice Kirkheim, who committed suicide in Berlin rather than face questioning by the Gestapo, told World in Action that they were informed that they could not claim her British savings because she had never been "deprived of liberty".

The report says British banks have complied rigidly with the law and there is no evidence that they refused legitimate claims. But as with the Swiss banks, the onus was on individuals to locate the money.