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54K Swiss Holocaust Accounts

A search through Swiss banks turned up 54,000 unclaimed accounts that may have belonged to Holocaust victims, an international panel concluded Monday, criticizing some banks for stonewalling the victims' heirs.

Â"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,Â" said the final report of a panel, appointed by Swiss bankers and international Jewish organizations.

But it said the unprecedented search for the rightful owners of the accounts was evidence of a new willingness by the banks to help bring Â"a sense of justice and closure to one part of the horrific experience of the Holocaust.Â"

Under the leadership of former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker, the panel employed up to 650 international accountants to comb through 54 Swiss banks in search of accounts opened while the Nazis held power in neighboring Germany from 1933 to 1945.

The panel said it was impossible to put a dollar value on the Holocaust accounts in Swiss banks because so much information was missing, but that the $1.25 billion being paid by the banks in a U.S. class-action settlement should cover the claims of victims and their heirs and leave funds for other claimants.

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

The Swiss Bankers Association, which helped pay for the search, welcomed the report as vindicating the behavior of Swiss banks during and after World War II, saying: Â"The auditors have reported no evidence of systematic destruction of records of victim accounts, organized discrimination against the accounts of victims of Nazi persecution or concerted efforts to divert the funds of victims of Nazi persecution to improper purposes.Â"

But the panel also said the auditors had Â"confirmed evidence of questionable and deceitful actions by some individual banks in the handling of accounts of victims, including withholding of information from Holocaust victims or their heirs about their accounts.Â"

It said it had found cases of Â"inappropriate closing of accounts, failure to keep adequate records, many cases of insensitivity to the efforts of victims or heirs of victims to claim dormant or closed accounts."

And it said it found Â"a general lack of diligence -- even active resistance -- in response to earlier private and official inquiries about dormant accounts.Â"

But it added: Â"Switzerland and the Swiss banks were not responsible for those terrible events (of the Holocaust). Nor were they alone in being havens for victims' funds.Â"

Banks in Britain and the United States also received funds from Jews and others trying to flee the Nazis, it said.

The search through Swiss banks for assets of Nazi victims has lasted mre than three years and cost $500 million, banking officials said.

The commission said the total assets of the banks at the end of World War II were $9.1 billion, and that covered not only customer deposits but also other assets.

The report said current values are 10 times the 1945 value and noted that some panel members projected a 1999 value of between $192.3 million and $442 million for the Holocaust victim accounts, but that too much information was missing -- especially since many of the accounts had been closed.

The audit checked for activity in the accounts up until this decade, and bank officials say details from 4 million accounts were entered in one computer database.

That information was compared with a second database containing the names of more than 5.5 million Holocaust victims from records in Israel, the United States and elsewhere.

The panel has been trying to determine how many of the accounts belonged to people killed by the Nazis and how many had nothing to do with the Holocaust. It recommended the publication of 25,000 more names on accounts so that relatives can file claims.

Two years ago, Swiss banks published 5,559 names on missing account holders who lived outside Switzerland. Those accounts are now worth $44.2 million.

The panel's report was released as last year's $1.25 billion out-of-court settlement between the two biggest Swiss banks and Holocaust victims and their heirs enters its final phase. That accord is supposed to cover the money turned up by the Volcker commission.

By Alexander G. Higgins
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