New York demands bank war records

Holocaust loot: Focus of dispute over Jewish assets from Nazi era shifts to US as Europe tries to come to terms with its past
  • @dusborne
As they struggle to quell the international furore over lost accounts of victims of the Holocaust, Swiss banks have been ordered to hand over records of all deposits made in New York City during the Second World War.

The demand, by the Governor of New York State, George Pataki, comes days after the three banks principally implicated in the affair, Credit Suisse, the Union Bank of Switzerland and Swiss Bank Corp, agreed to set up a $70m (pounds 43m) compensation fund for heirs of the victims. Mr Pataki is sending New York State's Banking Superintendent, Neil Levin, to Switzerland today to make the request to the directors of the three banks in person. He is acting on a suspicion that some of the assets deposited by Jews in the Nazi era may been secretly channelled to New York.

At a press conference, the Governor, flanked by the State Comptroller, Carl McCall, also said he was going ahead with measures to bar any more deposits by the state with any Swiss banks operating in America.

The moves will disappoint the banks, which had hoped the opening of the compensation fund on Wednesday would defuse the dispute. They contrast with the mostly conciliatory response of the World Jewish Congress in New York, which has ended its call for a worldwide boycott of Swiss banks.

Both the WJC and Alfonse D'Amato, the New York senator who has pursued his own high-profile inquiry into the fate of the victims' Nazi-era deposits, greeted the fund's creation as an important first step towards settling the affair. "We have gone from confrontation to co-operation," said Kalman Sultanik, the vice-president of the WJC in New York.

Mr Levin said before he left: "We will comb every record, follow every lead regardless of where it takes us, and do everything we can do to reach the truth."

The banks have been told to surrender all records of dealings at their New York branches in the years 1939-1945.

Meanwhile, New York City has signalled that the creation of the $70m fund may not be enough. The City Council is to hold hearings on Monday and may vote to take its own steps to suspend dealings between the city and the Swiss banks. "We think it is a hopeful first step, but we think there is still a along way to go," said a council official. "And we believe that it remains important to keep the American public engaged in this affair".

A conciliatory note was struck by Mr D'Amato after meeting Swiss MPs in Washington on Thursday. "I understand the frustrations and I share the concerns," the senator said. "We want an accounting of every single dollar, but let's not begin to take punitive steps now". Among the outstanding issues is the size of the fund and how it will be distributed to the thousands of claimants. Additional money has been promised by the Swiss government, but so far it has not made clear how much it will contribute and when it will come forward with it.

Also not yet resolved is the fate of some $68m in Nazi gold bullion in storage in the Federal Reserve in New York and in the Bank of England. The bullion is what remains of gold thought to have been plundered from national treasuries by invading Nazi troops in the war.

Last week Britain, the US and France agreed to suspend distribution of the bullion to national treasuries and to consider surrendering it instead to the compensation fund. Some believe Jewish assets, including gold fillings taken from Holocaust victims, may have been melted into the bullion.