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10 minute read
Bruce W. Nelan

Estelle Sapir believes her dream has been locked away by Swiss banks. If she ever gets hold of it, she hopes to have a real bedroom, not one in which she sees a stove when she opens her eyes in the morning. She longs to visit her grandparents’ graves in Poland, and the sites of the Nazi extermination camps where her father and almost all her relatives were slaughtered. “It isn’t a very big dream,” she says. “I just want to have enough money so I can pay the rent each month without having to worry.”

Money was not always a problem for Sapir, who is 70 and lives in one room of a genteelly fading three-story house in Queens, New York. She was, she recalls, “a child of privilege” in Warsaw, where her father Jozef owned an investment bank. She and her brother and sister attended private schools, and the family traveled to the great European resorts for bathing in the summer and skiing in the winter. To ensure the family’s future in uncertain times, Jozef Sapir regularly deposited his profits in banks in Switzerland, $30,000 to $40,000 at a time. “He trusted them absolutely,” she says. “It’s funny. He was able to protect his money from the Nazis, but not from the Swiss.”

What happened, Sapir and other Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust charge, is that Swiss banks implacably refused to hand over to the survivors of death camps or their heirs the money deposited in secret, numbered accounts before World War II engulfed Europe. In the 50 years since then, nearly all the claimants have given up their efforts, stymied by unbending Swiss demands for documents and records that were simply unavailable after the carnage of war. Hannah Greenberg, for example, was only five when she fled the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, leaving her father behind. Now living in Scotland, she remembers he told her then, “There is a dowry for you in a Swiss bank.” But, she says, “I have no documents.”

When Sapir went to the Credit Suisse bank in Geneva in 1947, she showed officials a deposit slip dated August 1938. The bankers were unmoved. One of them, with what she remembers as a starchy military bearing, told her that in order to claim the account she would have to produce a death certificate for her father. “I broke into tears,” she says, “and I cried to him, ‘You want me to get it from Hitler, from Himmler?’ But it was no use.” That was the experience of thousands of Jews.

Now, after five decades and under immense international pressure, the Swiss stone wall is beginning to crack. Last week in Zurich, Edgar Bronfman Sr., president of the World Jewish Congress, based in New York City, produced a list–secret until recently–of long-ago account holders, and turned it over to a committee set up jointly last May by the Swiss Bankers Association and a coalition of Jewish organizations. The document contains the names, home cities and deposits–totaling $13.5 million–of some 500 account holders as recorded by Swiss Bank Corp.’s New York City office on June 14, 1941. About 200 of those people later became victims of the Holocaust. The accounting is designed to show the shortcomings of a 1962 inquiry that found only $4.5 million in Jewish accounts at Swiss banks.

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, calls it “a smoking gun” and a true test of Swiss bona fides. “For 50 years,” says Steinberg, “they have been telling us, ‘We can’t give you any money because you have no records.’ Now if they say we still can’t have it, the implications are monstrous. After all, this is their list, not ours.” Jewish organizations in Europe and the U.S. believe Switzerland’s vaults still hold prewar deposits that, with a half-century of interest, could be worth $3 billion to $7 billion today. Even if the claim is too high–as it probably is–many millions of dollars are involved. Beyond that, newly invigorated probers have been digging into all aspects of Switzerland’s unsavory history of wartime dealings with the Nazis and its postwar treatment of the survivors of those Jews who had entrusted their savings to Swiss banks, lawyers and insurance companies. Among the most grisly charges: that the Swiss National Bank is still holding gold ingots melted down from the jewelry and teeth of Holocaust victims.

The newly surfaced details of U.S. branch accounts are a small slice of what the Swiss banks held, since they only represent funds transferred to New York City by fearful Europeans. After the war began, the U.S. Government froze the American accounts of people living in German-occupied territory in order to keep the money out of Nazi hands. The Swiss Bank Corp. list, recently declassified along with other wartime secrets, had originally been handed over to the U.S. by the bank in 1941. Similar records were submitted by the New York City offices of Credit Suisse and the Swiss-America Corp., and they will be made public soon.

To look at records in Switzerland, the joint U.S.-Swiss commission, headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, is hiring several Swiss accounting firms to go into the banks and check their accounts, while preserving the secrecy the Swiss take such pride in. Though the committee’s accountants have been pledged the bank’s full access, it is doubtful they will come up with much. The investigators will be permitted to look only at dormant accounts, that is, those in which there has been no activity and no communication with the owners. Earlier this year the Swiss Bankers Association published the findings of a survey of dormant, pre-war accounts opened by non-Swiss clients. They unearthed 775 of them, containing a total of only $32 million. Volcker expects the investigation to be “a detective job in part,” he told TIME. “They are going to have to question people, look for indirect evidence of what happened to the accounts. Everybody’s desire is to turn over as many stones as we can so the thing can be put to bed.”

A major obstacle to finding satisfactory answers is the fact that many Jews in Germany and occupied areas were risking their life when they illegally sent their money out to Switzerland. To protect themselves they depended not only on the secrecy of numbered accounts but also on intermediaries: Swiss lawyers and accountants who opened the accounts and managed them under power of attorney. If the middlemen were honest brokers, they turned the funds over to their rightful owners after the war. If they were crooked, they embezzled the money long ago or, by making withdrawals or deposits, have fended off investigators looking at dormant accounts. Ten years after an account is closed, banks destroy the records. “I’m sure we will not find much for the heirs of the Holocaust,” says Switzerland’s independent bank ombudsman Hanspeter Hani, “but I’m sure we will get some results.”

In the U.S., relying on newly declassified documents, Senator Alfonse D’Amato of New York has been holding public hearings and dispatching investigators to hear the stories of survivors like Estelle Sapir. Earlier this month the U.S. State Department announced a “thorough and immediate study” of what it knew about the Swiss handling of assets from Germany during and after the war. And in New York City this month, Holocaust survivors and heirs filed a $20 billion class action contending that Swiss banks improperly refused to return victims’ money and other valuables on deposit. Says Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Philippe Tissieres: “This publicity is really killing us.”

The spotlight has also found potentially an even darker corner of Swiss history. Last month the British Foreign Office released a 23-page report titled Nazi Gold: Information from the British Archives, which reveals that an immense amount of gold the Nazis looted from banks and private holdings in occupied countries ended up in Switzerland. Citing a Swiss banker who “let it slip,” the report says some $500 million in Nazi gold was on deposit in Switzerland, a charge Bern vigorously denies. Not all of it was taken from captured central banks. Some was gold from the jewelry and teeth of Jewish victims of death camps. The Germans then remelted it into ingots and camouflaged them with the stamp of the prewar Reichsbank. Despite knowledge of the magnitude of such actions, in 1946 the Allies signed an agreement under which the Swiss handed over only about $60 million to be repaid to the looted countries.

More disclosures may be coming. “We need to recognize there was guilt, and we have a responsibility for it,” says Verena Grendelmeier, a Swiss member of parliament who has been pressing for an investigation for two years and is now getting action. Earlier this month the lower house of parliament voted unanimously to set up an independent panel of experts to look into wartime financial history. With approval by the upper house expected shortly, the commission is to start work next April. It will be authorized to penetrate all levels of secrecy inside the banks, but unfortunately for those who want swift answers, it has been given up to five years to finish its task. The panel will try to trace the “fate of assets which reached Switzerland as a result of National Socialist rule” in Germany. That includes questions of complicity with the Nazis, illicit profits, and illegal gold and currency transactions. Individual claims by the relatives of Jewish victims, however, will be left to the Volcker commission.

Meanwhile, the U.S., British and French governments must decide what they will do with 5.5 tons of gold from the stocks turned over by Switzerland in the 1946 settlement. Jewish organizations in several countries urge that it be given to surviving victims of Nazism, or to charities or Israel. That step is needed to right the wrong the Allies perpetrated when they ignored individual claims on the gold, suggests Greville Janner, a British Member of Parliament and chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust. “Now is the time to do what is worthy and decent and honorable,” he says, “which is to give the residual gold to the victims, Jewish and non-Jewish.” Such a step is “highly unlikely,” a British Foreign Office spokesman says, since the remaining gold is destined to be divided among the 10 governments whose treasuries were looted that still have outstanding claims.

It would be fitting if Sapir and all the other survivors treated callously by Swiss officialdom could now look forward to receiving vast amounts in restitution. At best, smaller amounts are more likely. But, says Bronfman, “This is not about money. This is about justice.” The survivors have a right, at long last, to an honest reckoning, and Switzerland needs to repair its reputation for rectitude. Both sides have a strong interest in opening the books and answering the buried questions.

–Reported by Larry Gurwin/Brussels, Nina Planck/London, Lewis M. Simons/Washington and Charles P. Wallace/Geneva

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