For 31,000 families disinherited by the Holocaust, the wait may finally be over

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KENNETH WARD does not know what happened to the money his father, a music teacher, secreted away in a Swiss bank account as war loomed.

He was shipped to Britain at the age of 16 to escape the Nazis. His parents and elder brother later died in a Polish concentration camp.

Now a pensioner, Mr Ward is trying to find the missing money. He has filled in the forms to help identify accounts that Holocaust survivors have never been able to reclaim for lack of proof of ownership.

News of the $1.25 billion (nearly pounds 800 million) settlement agreed between two Swiss banks and Jewish leaders in New York late on Wednesday may help, regardless of whether the banks find Mr Ward's family account.

But despite the fanfare of the historic deal, the details are still to be agreed. It was brokered this week as several American states prepared to impose sanctions against Swiss businesses, accusing them of dragging their feet in resolving the affair. How exactly the money is going to be distributed over the next three years is still unknown.

"I think it's a step in the right direction," Mr Ward said yesterday from his home in Essex. "But I don't really know whether I will qualify."

For Mr Ward, as for many others, he only really wants what is his. "We're not looking for handouts. We're just hoping to retrieve some of the money that was deposited in Swiss bank accounts and was lost."

The deal was nonetheless welcomed by Jewish groups even as it provoked some hostility in Switzerland itself.

Far from satisfying concerns about the wartime treatment of Jews, the decision looks likely to create renewed pressure to settle other outstanding disputes arising from the war and post-war settlements.

These include what happened to looted art and compensation for Jewish slave labourers forced to work in appalling conditions in German factories. Many big German companies have refused for years to compensate their former workers.

Neville Nagler, of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: "We would now look for a rapid settlement on the other major and outstanding issues. Most especially these relate to looted art treasures and outstanding insurance policies."

They were also looking for "the moral restitution which will come from absorbing the lessons of the past two years," he said.

Lord Janner, of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said he hoped the money would reach the victims and their families very swiftly.

"Now we must look towards other nations to complete their further inquiries into what happened to assets of the victims of the Nazis." Fifteen countries have investigations under way into Jewish assets.

A spokesman for the banks, Credit Suisse Group and the Union Bank of Switzerland AG, said the settlement represented a "major milestone in our longstanding efforts to ensure that justice is served. In the eyes of all involved, this agreement represents full financial and moral restitution."

But it emerged yesterday that the banks assume that other Swiss companies and institutions will help to finance the payment because they lifted the threat of sanctions.

Yet the Swiss government has said it regards the US lawsuits as a private matter and would not spend any taxpayers' money. The Swiss central bank, the National Bank, which dealt with large amounts of gold looted by the Nazis, welcomed the agreement but steered clear of any commitment.

Political opinion was split. The conservative Swiss People's Party said it regretted the success of "attempts at blackmail" and would resist any use of public funds.

More than 31,000 plaintiffs from around the world were signed up to the class action claims against the banks, which triggered this deal.

However, Elan Steinberg, of the World Jewish Congress, said the money would be used to benefit all Holocaust survivors and not just the claimants.

The Volcker commission, which was auditing Swiss bank accounts to try to find missing accounts, would continue its work. Anyone whose money could not be traced would be eligible to make applications for payment out of the $1.25 billion settlement.