Volcker report presents Swiss bank probe result

An international probe of dozens of Swiss banks turned up 54,000 unclaimed accounts that may be linked to Holocaust victims. No evidence of systematic destruction of dormant account information was found but some banks were criticised for stonewalling.

This content was published on December 6, 1999 - 16:30

An international probe of dozens of Swiss banks turned up 54,000 unclaimed accounts that may be linked to Holocaust victims. While auditors found no evidence of systematic destruction of dormant account information, some banks were criticised for stonewalling.

The report was compiled by the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons, which was formed in 1996 by Swiss bankers and Jewish groups. It was chaired by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker.

The report is based on the findings of up to 650 international accountants who combed through 59 Swiss banks in search of accounts opened while the Nazis held power in neighbouring Germany from 1933 to 1945.

The key thrust of the bank audits of the so-called “Volcker commission” was to establish the number of Swiss bank accounts that may be linked to Holocaust victims or their survivors.

The committee said it found 53,886 such accounts -- about ten times as much as the Swiss banks themselves had said they had discovered. The discrepancy is due to the fact that the Volcker committee also included about 30,000 closed accounts.

The names of 25,000 accounts should be made public so that relatives can file claims, the committee recommended. Two years ago, Swiss banks published 5,559 names on missing account holders who lived outside Switzerland.

The panel also said it found 1,622 accounts that, based on name matches, might have belonged to top-ranking Nazis or their collaborators. No names were disclosed.

The panel said it was impossible to put a dollar value on the 53,886 accounts in Swiss banks because so much information is missing.

"The handling of these funds was too often grossly insensitive to the special conditions of the Holocaust and sometimes misleading in intent and unfair in result," said the final report, referring to the banks’ handling of Holocaust-era assets.

However, the committee praised the Swiss banks’ cooperation in uncovering the truth about the dormant accounts and said attitudes had clearly changed.

The Swiss Bankers Association said it considered the report fair, and said it regretted cases of improper behaviour listed by the report.

"The auditors have reported no evidence of systematic destruction of records of victim accounts, organised discrimination against the accounts of victims of Nazi persecution or concerted efforts to divert the funds of victims of Nazi persecution to improper purposes," the association said.

The search for dormant accounts is independent of last year’s $1.25 billion settlement agreed by Swiss banks and Holocaust survivors and heirs. When Holocaust survivors and their heirs can be matched with accounts listed by the Volcker commission, the money will be paid out from the settlement fund.

The search through Swiss banks for the assets of Nazi victims has lasted more than three years and cost $500 million.

The whole issue also led to some heated debates in Switzerland about financial and moral responsibilities that were, or were not, met by Swiss banks.

The controversy has triggered a debate in parliament over how dormant accounts should be dealt with legally in the future. There have been calls for setting up a centralised body to which banks and other financial institutions would have to report over their dormant accounts.

From staff and wire reports.

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