World

Naming names

Swiss banks issue a long-sought list of Nazi-era accounts

TOM FENNELL August 4 1997
World

Naming names

Swiss banks issue a long-sought list of Nazi-era accounts

TOM FENNELL August 4 1997

Naming names

World

Swiss banks issue a long-sought list of Nazi-era accounts

TOM FENNELL

When Nurit Glucksman opened her morning newspaper in Toronto last week, she came face-to-face with her family’s tragic history. The Swiss Bankers Association had published a two-page advertisement listing the names of almost 2,000 people who kept secret bank accounts in the country during the Second World War. Many of those people died in the Holocaust, and the Swiss had proven notably unhelpful in establishing the rightful heirs. Now, in black and white, Glucksman saw a Swiss admission that not only was the victims’ money there to be claimed—but justice as well. As she pored over the list, her eyes stopped at the name Susanne Beate Herz—apparently her mother-in-law, who died in 1966 and may have deposited the money when she fled Poland during the war. Glucksman quickly phoned her husband Izhak at work, and now they are determined to reclaim the money. “We have suffered so much,” said Izhak Glucksman, who lost many of his relatives in Nazi death camps. “The money is ours. It’s only justice.”

The Glucksmans were not the only Canadians to find the name of a long-lost relative on the worldwide list of non-Swiss account holders. Perhaps no one was more surprised than Toronto lawyer Hyman Bergel, who had been looking for traces of his family for years. His father, Avrum, was one of 11 children born in Poland to parents who operated a successful textiles business. But his father and his mother, Faye, were the only family members to survive the Nazis, and for decades he hunted unsuccessfully through Europe for another living Bergel. He is sure that the Egon Bergel listed in the advertisement is his father’s long-lost brother. Now, he is hoping that another Bergel somewhere in the world may have also seen the ad and will respond. “It was bittersweet,” said Bergel. “I finally found somebody—but they’re dead.”

The publication of the names in 40 major newspapers around the world came after two years of mounting international pressure. It was a personal triumph for Edgar Bronfman, the Montreal-born chairman of Seagram Co. and president of the World Jewish Congress, who in 1995 held a testy meeting with representatives of Switzerland’s most powerful banks that got the process started.

Bronfman was pursuing claims on behalf of Jews who died in the death camps and left behind assets in Switzerland, which remained neutral during the war. He wanted the proceeds returned to their families, or survivors of the Holocaust. The Swiss, he said, initially claimed that their own audit showed 774 dormant accounts with about $32 million (U.S.) in them. But the final figure will be much higher. “It makes me laugh that they tried to buy us with $32 million,” said Bronfman. ‘They are now facing returning $60 million plus hundreds of millions of dollars in interest from 1,872 accounts—with more to come.”

The fallout from investigations into Switzerland’s complicity with the Nazis also ensnared Canada last week, when it was suggested that the Bank of Canada may have helped the Swiss launder tons of Nazi gold. The Germans looted gold from the treasuries of the countries they occupied, as well as from the teeth and wedding rings of Holocaust victims. According to recently declassified U.S. intelligence reports, Switzerland’s banks accepted $7.7 billion in stolen Nazi bullion (at today’s values), some of which was transferred to Portugal. And between

1942 and 1944, the Bank of Canada was the middleman in transferring six tons of gold between the Swiss National Bank and the Bank of Portugal, which one of the U.S. documents describes as “probably tainted.” In a letter to the Canadian Jewish Congress, Bank of Canada governor Gordon Thiessen pledged to investigate and said he was deeply concerned “that gold of other central banks could have been associated in any way with Nazi Germany gold transactions.” Confirming the deal, a spokesman for the Swiss National Bank in Zurich told Maclean’s that it was a straight swap—via the Bank of Canada—of Swiss gold held in Ottawa for Portuguese gold held in Bern, because the Allies had frozen all overseas Swiss gold holdings. ‘The intention was not to launder, but to get back some of the gold that was blocked and we couldn’t use,” he said. Historian Irving Abella, past president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, noted that both Switzerland and Portugal were considered neutral and the Canadian central bank may have just wanted to earn a commission. “No one realized at the time the extent to which the Swiss were involved in the transfer of gold for the Nazis,” he said. “So every country that comes close to it comes under suspicion.” But he said he hoped Ottawa would investigate fully to determine whether there was political involvement.

Even the Vatican was implicated last week in the laundering of Nazi gold. Researchers producing a U.S. television documentary said they found a document claiming that the Vatican stored $180 million, mostly in gold coins, for Croatian fascists after the Second World War to keep the money out of Allied hands. A Vatican spokesman denied the allegation, claiming it was based on “dubious authority”—the U.S. intelligence document’s source was not named. But Bronfman said he wanted to meet with Pope John Paul II on the issue.

The full scope of Switzerland’s painful wartime hangover will become clearer later this year. As part of their deal with Bronfman, the Swiss agreed to the creation of an outside body to audit their banks. The Independent Committee of Eminent Persons, headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, will comb through the files of more than 500 banks to determine how many dormant accounts may exist. Bronfman expects the search to produce hundreds of additional accounts. A contrite Georg Krayer, president of the Swiss Bankers Association, said last week he wished the issue had been dealt with earlier. “I have no fig leaf big enough,” he said, “to cover the negligence of colleagues in the postwar era.”

More should also emerge about the exact value of the gold, art and cash looted by the Nazis and allegedly laundered by the Swiss as a massive class-action lawsuit begins in New York City. The suit, which is independent of Bronfman’s initiative, involves three U.S. Jewish groups and is financed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Eos Angeles. In initial arguments this week, they will seek billions of dollars in damages from the Swiss banks for assets stolen by the Nazis. Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Wiesenthal Center, said that if the case proceeds, the banks will be forced to reveal not only the names of missing account holders but also the history of the banks’ involvement with the Nazis. Cooper also insisted “there is not a chance” that last week’s publication of names would cause them to drop the lawsuit.

In the meantime, questions have arisen about many of the names on the list—which included an aide to war criminal Adolf Eichmann and the wife of the head of Nazi intelligence. “It is a bit unsettling when we’re dealing with Swiss complicity with Nazi Germany that we have the names of six known Nazis on the list,” said Daniel Fine, director of international affairs with the Canadian Jewish Congress. “This surely rubs salt into these very large open wounds.”

The publication of the list also aggravated tensions in Switzerland. Since Bronfman’s meeting in 1995, the Swiss banks have attempted to rehabilitate the country’s image abroad by creating a $275-million humanitarian fund to compensate Holocaust survivors and their heirs. As well, Swiss President Arnold Koller has proposed the creation of a $6.5-billion “Solidarity Fund,” which would be created from the country’s gold reserves and used to aid survivors of the death camps and the victims of genocide around world. But there has been a widespread backlash. Alexander Baumann, a leading member of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, said the Swiss are tired of being used as an “international whipping boy.” Many analysts believe that a nationwide referendum to approve the Solidarity Fund will be defeated.

For the relatives of Holocaust victims, however, Swiss public opinion is of little concern. They want justice for those who died and suffered. “This isn’t ‘show me the money,’ ” said lawyer Bergel. “It’s show me the justice.”

JOHN ZAROCOSTAS

LISA SCHLEIN