Swiss Banks Admit to Holding Accounts of Holocaust Victims Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Investigations revealed that Swiss banks contained hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and valuables of Holocaust victims who had hidden their assets from the Nazis. Swiss banks admitted to holding the accounts, which led to shock, outrage, and an international scandal that forced the banks and the Swiss government into reparations.

Summary of Event

Switzerland was a neutral nation during World War II, so it was common practice for European Jews to open accounts with Swiss banks. In 1994, Elan Steinberg, the executive director of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), charged that Swiss banks still held between ten and twenty thousand dormant accounts containing the assets of Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Twenty thousand far exceeded the number of accounts the banks had admitted to in the past. [kw]Banks Admit to Holding Accounts of Holocaust Victims, Swiss (June 25, 1997) [kw]Holocaust Victims, Swiss Banks Admit to Holding Accounts of (June 25, 1997) Volcker, Paul Holocaust;and Swiss banks[Swiss banks] World Jewish Congress Volcker Commission Meili, Christophe Volcker, Paul Holocaust;and Swiss banks[Swiss banks] World Jewish Congress Volcker Commission Meili, Christophe [g]Europe;June 25, 1997: Swiss Banks Admit to Holding Accounts of Holocaust Victims[02820] [g]Switzerland;June 25, 1997: Swiss Banks Admit to Holding Accounts of Holocaust Victims[02820] [c]Banking and finance;June 25, 1997: Swiss Banks Admit to Holding Accounts of Holocaust Victims[02820] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;June 25, 1997: Swiss Banks Admit to Holding Accounts of Holocaust Victims[02820] [c]International relations;June 25, 1997: Swiss Banks Admit to Holding Accounts of Holocaust Victims[02820] [c]Corruption;June 25, 1997: Swiss Banks Admit to Holding Accounts of Holocaust Victims[02820] [c]Public morals;June 25, 1997: Swiss Banks Admit to Holding Accounts of Holocaust Victims[02820] [c]Social issues and reform;June 25, 1997: Swiss Banks Admit to Holding Accounts of Holocaust Victims[02820] [c]Government;June 25, 1997: Swiss Banks Admit to Holding Accounts of Holocaust Victims[02820] Eizenstat, Stuart Koller, Arnold Borer, Thomas

On May 2, 1996, a memorandum of understanding announced by the World Jewish Restitution Organization World Jewish Restitution Organization, the WJC, and the Swiss Bankers Association Swiss Bankers Association (SBA) led to the formation of the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons Independent Committee of Eminent Persons (ICEP). Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve System, was asked to form the commission to audit wartime accounts. The ICEP was instrumental in leading the banks finally to admit that thousands of accounts lay dormant in their vaults. On June 25, 1997, a claims resolution process was announced jointly by the SBA, the Swiss Federal Banking Commission, and the ICEP.

Thomas Borer, a Swiss diplomat and chairman of Switzerland’s own investigating commission, established in December, 1996, announced that the Swiss government would release all information it had on unclaimed bank accounts belonging to Holocaust victims. The revelation brought Switzerland great embarrassment, and the United States issued swift condemnation. The U.S. Senate introduced a bill requiring the U.S. government to divest its $300 million in investments in Swiss companies and to cease doing business with Switzerland until reparations were made. A commission headed by Stuart Eizenstat, the U.S. undersecretary of commerce for international trade, castigated Switzerland for not taking action in the case and also blamed the U.S. government for not insisting the Swiss take action.

The Eizenstat commission’s May, 1997, report noted that the Swiss received $400 million in gold (worth ten times as much by 1997 standards) from Germany during the war, gold that was deposited with Union Banque Suisse (Union Bank of Switzerland, or UBS) or sent to other countries to pay for war materials. The report denounced the Swiss for their complicity with Germany, denounced their attitudes toward victims of Nazi oppression during the war, and claimed that Switzerland’s dealings in German gold prolonged the conflict. The Swiss argued, in turn, that they should be judged on their present actions in trying to compensate the victims and not for what they did or did not do before and during World War II.

Further information on the banking scandal had come to light on January 8, 1997, when Christophe Meili, working as a security guard at UBS, came across during his rounds two carts filled with “very old documents and books” that were scheduled for shredding, including two thick books, with “1945-1965” marked on their covers. Meili testified at a later hearing (May 6) before the U.S. Senate that he returned to the room because he remembered press reports concerning bank documents and records from World War II. He believed the items set for the shredder belonged in the national archives and that it would have been illegal had they been destroyed. As he found out the following day when he returned to the shredding room, most already had been destroyed. He also testified that he did not want harm to come to either the Jews or the Swiss, who certainly would be blamed for the illegal shredding. Meili brought what he could of the remaining documents to the Israeli Cultural Association, who handed them over to the police.

Meili was treated as a pariah in Switzerland. He was fired from his job and unable to find new employment. He was threatened by an anonymous caller who said he would kidnap his children and that he could collect the ransom money “from the Jews.” Meili complained that the Swiss police would not investigate the case and asked for political asylum in the United States. The WJC offered him employment. Meile also has received awards from Jewish organizations as well as aid to help with his legal fees.

The ICEP, in its final report of December 6, 1999, found no proof that the banks were acting together to destroy account records nor was there proof of a concerted effort to use the funds from these dormant accounts for illicit purposes. The commission did conclude, however, that some individual banks were unethical in handling the dormant accounts.

A plan to give billions of Swiss francs to victims of the Holocaust as a humanitarian measure was presented before the Swiss parliament, but Borer stated that the continued public accusations against Switzerland hindered passage of the measure because many Swiss believed the country was being treated unfairly. Switzerland cherished its strict neutrality during World War II, and allegations that it abetted Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler remained a critical concern for the country. The Swiss eventually agreed to some reparations from the government.

On February 26, the SBA announced the establishment of a $67 million humanitarian fund by the banks, and on March 5, Switzerland’s president, Koller, Arnold Arnold Koller, announced the government’s Swiss Foundation for Solidarity (SFS) to help victims of poverty, disasters, and human tragedy, such as genocide. He proposed that Swiss banks contribute $4.7 billion from their gold reserves, and the interest, several hundred million dollars per year, be used for aid, including for those persons (and their families) who survived the Holocaust. Koller’s announcement marked an official acknowledgment that the banks held deposits of gold owned by Jewish account holders. The conservative opposition in the Swiss parliament opposed the plan, claiming that it acknowledged Swiss guilt. The government proposed raising the money by the sale of gold over a ten-year period so that the sale would not affect the price of the precious metal or harm the Swiss economy by undermining its currency. Furthermore, tax money would not be used.

Moshe Fogel, Moshe Fogel of the Israeli Press Office said Jerusalem welcomed the funds. Avraham Burg, the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said it marked a victory for the moral stand the agency had taken in championing the reparations.

Impact

The Union Bank of Switzerland, Swiss Bank Corp., and Credit Suisse admitted to having thousands of dormant accounts from the time before and during World War II, accounts that totaled $200 million. The Central Bank of Switzerland, which received most of the Nazi gold, did not participate in the banks’ humanitarian fund. The humanitarian fund and SFS, the Swiss government foundation, helped repair some of the damage Switzerland incurred for denying its role in keeping the dormant accounts secret.

At the end of 1998, more than 100,000 Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe received from five hundred to twelve hundred dollars each. Payments were then made to survivors in Western Europe in February, 1999. An agreement was reached in March to reimburse $1.25 billion to American and Israeli victims for their economic losses. The banks, however, refused to admit liability.

German companies also charged with exploiting Holocaust victims looked at the Swiss model to settle their own lawsuits. In July, 1998, Volkswagen Volkswagen, which had used slave labor during the war, agreed to a reparations plan. In 1999, the German government agreed to set up a fund similar to that of Switzerland to compensate victims exploited by German companies in the Nazi era. Volcker, Paul Holocaust;and Swiss banks[Swiss banks] World Jewish Congress Volcker Commission Meili, Christophe

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Braillard, Philippe. Switzerland and the Crisis of Dormant Assets and Nazi Gold. New York: Kegan Paul International, 2000. An analysis of the dormant accounts scandal by an economist, with emphasis on the scandal’s effect on Switzerland as a nation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eizenstat, Stuart. Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II. New York: PublicAffairs, 2003. An account by an American official and diplomat about efforts to raise funds for reparations from various governments, including Switzerland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vincent, Isabel. Hitler’s Silent Partners: Swiss Banks and Nazi Gold and the Pursuit of Justice. New York: William Morrow, 1997. An award-winning Canadian journalist examines the Swiss accounts scandal, starting with the case of a Holocaust survivor in Canada and her efforts for reparations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ziegler, Jean. The Swiss, the Gold, and the Dead. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998. An account by a Swiss sociologist, who lays much blame on the greed of the Swiss banks for cooperating with the Nazis and covering up the story.

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