Swiss bankers to list war accounts

Holocaust legacy: Switzerland responds to international criticism while Italy convicts Nazi for massacre
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The Independent Online
The names of holders of thousands of accounts lying unclaimed in Swiss banks are being published across the world today in response to international criticism over the banks' treatment of Holocaust survivors.

The move is a late attempt by members of the Swiss Bankers' Association to clean up their image, which has been tarnished by allegations that they obstructed attempts by survivors and their families to reclaim assets after the Second World War.

Pages of names are being printed in newspapers in 28 countries including Britain, America, Germany, Israel, Australia and the former Soviet Union. They are being simultaneously placed on the Internet.

Anyone recognising a name will be asked to contact the banks via a free telephone number in an effort finally to resolve what has become an embarrassing and damaging affair for the Swiss banking community.

Jeffrey Taufield, of the New York public relations firm Kekst and Company which acts for the association, said it was a "real example of Switzerland's commitment to be responsible and honourable in undertaking what must be done.

"We are literally reaching out to all corners of the world in an attempt to identify Holocaust survivors and their heirs."

The list covers all the accounts that have been dormant since the end of the Second World War which were opened by non-Swiss citizens before 1945. A second list of accounts will be published in October of dormant pre-1945 accounts opened by Swiss residents, who may have acted as proxies to hide the assets of European Jews and others threatened by the Nazis.

The drive behind the initiative has come from the Jewish community, which suffered particularly hard because many members died leaving no details of accounts held. Some banks are alleged to have demanded death certificates from families trying to make claims. But others may also benefit. A previous search showed accident victims to be among the dormant account holders.

Greville Janner, chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said many of the names would be dead, but at least their heirs would have a chance to recoup the family inheritance. "We have been begging the Swiss authorities for over a year now to do this. Their action contrasts with the obstruction and evasion which greeted needy refugees who approached the banks for their money immediately after the war. If banks had ever seriously looked for owners then, they would have saved years of suffering for thousands of people."

Sebastian Kornhauser, from south-west London, who is trying to trace the assets of his grandfather Jan, said it was a good sign. "Better late than never, but it is very much belated. This should have happened years ago."

But the problem of tracking down rightful owners are legion. Among the names on the list is that of Paul Mayer, 85, who lives in north London. He said yesterday that he had no idea if he had a claim. His Jewish stepmother died after being arrested in Germany at the beginning of the war and her second husband was held in a concentration camp, although he was not Jewish, and died of natural causes a few years later.

Mr Mayer said he would not want any money for himself. "It should go to Jews or to Jewish charities to help people in need. I am going to wait to see the advert before deciding what to do."

The Holocaust Educational Trust in London has opened a hotline (0171 222 5115) for anyone who wants advice.