Swiss banks let search begin for lost Jewish cash

In an unprecedented lifting of their country's strict banking secrecy, Swiss bankers have agreed to set up an independent body with "unfettered access" to search for millions - perhaps billions - of unclaimed and untraced dollars allegedly deposited in Switzerland by victims of the Holocaust.

Representatives of the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, and the Swiss Bankers Association, signed a two-page memorandum of agreement on determining Jewish assets held in Swiss banks in New York yesterday. It provides for a commission with three members appointed by the association and three by the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and other Jewish organisations, whose auditors would have powers to examine every individual account which has lain dormant since the end of the war.

The commission will also work with the Swiss government to find out whether accounts at Swiss banks and other financial institutions contain money, bullion or other assets stolen by the Nazis and deposited there for safekeeping before the Allies overran the Third Reich in 1945.

Thus, for the time being ends a controversy which last month found its way into the White House and the US Congress, as President Bill Clinton threw his weight behind the efforts of the WJC for full disclosure, and the Senate Banking Committee called a special hearing which virtually accused the association of a deliberate cover-up.

Estimates of how much money is involve vary wildly. A survey by the Swiss banks themselves, made public last September, turned up only 775 accounts which had not been touched for half a century, containing $34m (pounds 22m) and presumably belonging to Holocaust victims.

But that estimate was derided by Jewish leaders here with the WJC president, Edgar Bronfman, claiming the true figure was probably "several billions" worth of dollars, gold, paintings and other valuables entrusted to Swiss banks. They insist the meagre sums unearthed so far reflect only accounts opened in person by Holocaust victims. Countless others, they argue, were opened by Swiss-based trustees and lawyers on behalf of Jews scattered across Europe whose names did not feature on them.

What indirect evidence there is suggests the sum could far exceed $34m - a recently declassified US Treasury document from 1945 for instance claims one Swiss bank alone had 182 accounts on its books, mostly from Romanian Jews. Totalling $2m at the time, these would now be worth $20m with accrued interest.

The irony is that the Swiss banking secrecy laws were introduced in the 1930s with the intention of attracting money from Jews and others scared by the rise of the Nazis. But these same laws have made it difficult for relatives of victims to recover the assets, as the banks have demanded death certificates and other documents either destroyed or lost because of the War. Jewish organisations have also complained at the pounds 160 fee routinely charged by the banks for account searches.

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