Redeeming old Swiss bank accounts Humanitarian fund: A start at coming to terms with depositors killed in the Holocaust.

February 15, 1997

THREE BIG SWISS commercial banks have made a start at righting wrongs from the Nazi era by setting aside $71 million in a fund to compensate needy victims of the Holocaust under terms to be agreed with Jewish organizations. This is more than the $30 million the Swiss suggested earlier and less than the $250 million that some Jewish leaders had proposed. They also suggested that the Swiss government and central bank participate.

Almost immediately, a movement to boycott Swiss banks subsided. This fund is to be independent of dormant accounts of Holocaust victims from a half-century ago and would not affect claims on them by survivors or heirs. This is the first time that commercial banks have put up their own funds for such a purpose.

This sounds like the "good-faith financial gesture" that Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, sought after the Swiss banks had stonewalled his earlier efforts to get information and a mechanism for investigating claims of heirs. The fund is less important in the long run than two inquiries the Swiss have started. One has historians examining the services of neutral Switzerland to Nazi Germany during World War II, which included hiding and laundering looted wealth. The other is an international panel to identify dormant accounts and locate legitimate owners and heirs.

The need was rammed home when Union Bank of Switzerland was caught by one of its guards destroying records from the 1930s and 1940s. Along with Credit Suisse and Swiss Bank Corp., Union Bank has now set aside a "humanitarian fund for the victims of the Holocaust." Attacks by a former Swiss president and the Swiss ambassador to Washington on the character of critics appears ended.

The U.S., France and Britain agreed to freeze distribution of $68 million in gold bars that had been looted by Nazi Germany, possibly to be used in the humanitarian fund. Countries that acquired looted wealth, from gold in Sweden to apartments and paintings in France, are looking into their own past.

Most of the Jews in Central Europe who sent wealth to Swiss banks for safety were murdered by Nazi Germany. That does not make the deposits legally or morally the banks', which resisted a full accounting after the war. Most depositors are dead, as are more and more of their immediate heirs. Justice and restitution are real but lesser goals in this campaign. The ultimate prize sought is truth.

Pub Date: 2/15/97

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