Hunt for Nazi loot in vaults fizzles out

Initial investigations by Swiss banks have shown Holocaust survivors and their families may gain less than they hoped from a trawl of dormant accounts which Jewish organisations believe contain great wealth.

As the secretive banking community made an unparalleled attempt at openness this week, it emerged that a new round of inquiries has found only three families affected by the Holocaust with a rightful claim.

Hanspeter Hand, the Swiss banking ombudsman, said more than 800 cases have been examined in the last year, producing 11 successful claims on accounts which had been untouched for at least 10 years.

But although the most recent investigations by banks found 40m Swiss francs (pounds 17m) remain in more than 770 accounts dating from before 1945, only SFr11,000 (pounds 4,700) belonged to the three Holocaust families.

Jewish organisations have reported many cases where families have been refused ownership of assets, because the Holocaust wiped out records of account numbers, or because they have no death certificates for relatives who died in concentration camps.

The dispute last year prompted the banks to establish an "independent committee of eminent persons", chaired by Dr Paul Volcker, formerly head of America's Federal Reserve.

Searches in 1962 concentrated on names which "sounded" Jewish, according to a rabbi employed by the banks. They discovered SFr6m. But only about 5 per cent of banks responded to appeals for information and most of the 7,000 claimants at the time were unsuccessful.

This week, Dr Georg Krayer, president of the Swiss Bankers' Association, used its annual press conference to emphasise that everything possible was now being done. "If it is no longer possible to establish the identity of the legal owner, but there is a possibility that he may have been a Shoa victim, the assets will be transferred to an appropriate charitable organisation," he said.

Three international firms of accountants have been employed in the search. At least one bank says it has even interviewed former employers for clues as to what could have happened to accounts.

Dr Krayer said Swiss banks had failed to appreciate the emotions surrounding the accounts. "Maybe ...100 francs in the eyes of a booming community was not a big amount [but] it was maybe a very big amount for the ones that claimed it."

Privately, some bankers say they are now waiting for the Volcker committee to explain what they have consistently argued - that Switzerland is not hiding millions of francs. "It is not worth us repeating that, because [soon] we will have the information through Volcker," one senior banker said.

However, one of the world's most secretive banking systems cannot easily shake off the suspicion that it has been not always honest. The sacking of Christoph Melli, a night watchman who rescued Holocaust-era documents from being shredded by the United Bank of Switzerland (UBS), cast doubt on the banks' vaunted "transparency".

There have been claims that some banks have simply absorbed the smaller funds. And some believe many families will never trace their funds because they were deposited in the names of lawyers or friends.

On the separate matter of the gold which the Reichsbank traded through the Swiss National Bank, Jean-Pierre Roth, vice chairman of SNB's governing board, said it has no German gold in its vaults. It was used during the war to buy raw materials for Switzerland, he said.

The Swiss government and agencies led by the World Jewish Congress this week reached agreement on setting up a foundation for Holocaust victims and their heirs, opened with a SFr100m donation from the country's biggest banks.

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