Swiss accused of hiding Holocaust victims' accounts

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The Independent Online
AN INDEPENDENT investigation combing through Swiss bank files has discovered tens of thousands of accounts that may have belonged to victims of the Holocaust, and accused the financial bodies of "deceit".

The international panel, headed by the former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, had been searching for the truth for three years, after accusations that banks had been hoarding money from Holocaust victims and refusing to pay up. Announcing their findings yesterday, the panel said they had unearthed nearly 54,000 accounts, probably or possibly, linked to victims of the Holocaust.

The report recommends that the names of the most likely Holocaust victims, 25,187 in all, be published so that relatives can claim money that used to belong to their families.

The Swiss had found only 775 foreign dormant accounts but put up $1.25bn (pounds 796m) last year to cover claims.

The investigation "confirmed evidence of questionable and deceitful actions by some individual banks in the handling of accounts of victims, including withholding of information," the report noted. "The handling of these funds was too often grossly insensitive to the special conditions of the Holocaust and sometimes misleading in intent and unfair in result."

The 650 auditors found cases of "inappropriate closing of accounts, failure to keep adequate records, many cases of insensitivity to the efforts of victims or heirs of victims to claim dormant or closed accounts", as well as "a general lack of diligence, even active resistance, in response to earlier private and official inquiries about dormant accounts". The Swiss banking system was, however, found not guilty of the charge levelled by Jewish groups of a broader conspiracy. "The auditors have reported no evidence of systematic destruction of records of victim accounts, organised discrimination against the accounts of victims of Nazi persecution, or concerted efforts to divert the funds ... to improper purposes," the panel concluded.

The Swiss Bankers Association, which funded the inquiry, felt contrite but partially vindicated, interpreting the findings as little more than a catalogue of incompetence. Georg Krayer, the association's chairman, said: "I should like to apologise for all the disappointments and hurt feelings this inadequacy may have caused." But, he added, "with the exception of a few isolated cases, the banks' conduct during the period in question was correct".

This "correct" conduct, according to the inquiry, involved closing more than 36,000 accounts without explanation. Even when the accounts survived, families of Holocaust victims were confronted with a wall of bureaucracy when trying to claim their contents.

The investigation tried to match the names of four million account holders with nearly six million Holocaust victims. A separate search for prominent Nazis came up with 1,622 accounts, and revealed that 417 accounts were paid out to Nazi officials who coerced the owners to withdraw their money.

The auditors could not say how much money had been in the accounts, but estimated that the $1.25bn fund should cover it.