THE PROMISE of Switzerland's foreign ministry to consider ethics as well as law in the unclaimed wealth of Holocaust victims of the 1940s is mildly reassuring. But for credibility's sake, Switzerland and its banks need to bring international observers into the search, with nothing hidden.
Switzerland has more than once swept up dormant accounts of deceased Jewish depositors and distributed funds to the Swiss Jewish community and a refugee aid group. But qualified critics have accused the country and the bank managements of not aggressively seeking legitimate owners or heirs of accounts that were numbered in secrecy at the time.
Switzerland agrees that some accounts still exist, possibly totaling $32 million. Some Jewish groups believe $7 billion is more like it. Many heirs of persons murdered in the 1940s never knew the numbers of the accounts. A second set of accounts was opened by Nazi criminals with loot stolen from victims of the Holocaust.
Swiss historian Peter Hug has written that his nation in 1949 agreed secretly with Poland that unclaimed accounts of Polish citizens in Swiss banks could be used by the Polish Communist government to compensate Swiss owners of property it expropriated. The U.S. secretly protested to Switzerland at the time. But the Swiss newspaper Neue Zuercher Zeitung has reprinted a 1950 report showing that the deal was not secret and that it provided for Poland to reimburse Swiss banks for future claims on transferred assets, ostensibly preserving the rights of original owners and heirs.
Questions remain unanswered. It is not good enough for Swiss banks to assure the world they are not sitting on billions of dollars of such assets or to point to an ombudsman helping claimants search for lost accounts. The Swiss parliament should empower experts credible to all interested parties to lift the secrecy on Swiss wartime banking, both with respect to true ownership of accounts and to institutional dealings with the Nazi German war machine. Nothing less would lay the suspicions to rest.
Pub Date: 10/28/96