February 5, 1997: Switzerland’s largest banks create a fund to compensate Holocaust victims
As the Nazi menace became evident, hundreds of thousands of Western European Jews attempted to secure their assets (much of it liquidated in fire sales after pogroms like the Reichskristallnacht) in bank accounts in Switzerland and neutral countries. These refugees or their couriers were often unable to communicate account details to relatives who managed to escape the Nazis. Moreover, descendants’ access to these accounts was often blocked by missing paperwork such as death certificates (which the Nazi neglected to issue). These dormant accounts and those holding assets directly plundered by the Nazis and their allies were shrouded in secrecy.
Perhaps thousands of individuals had petitioned banking authorities for decades with no success but beginning in 1995 the World Jewish Congress (WJC) marshaled these individual efforts and launched a class-action lawsuit. They were also able to build bi-partisan support for their effort to recover these funds. Stymied by the Swiss in their search, researchers spent hundreds of hours scouring tens of thousands yellowed U.S. intelligence dispatches.In their search they discovered that much of the hundreds of millions of dollars in gold stolen by Germans during the war remained within Swiss banks. They learned that while the Swiss would not disclose account details they may have used some of the deposits to help the Polish government indemnify Swiss citizens who had their property seized by the Communists.
In time, the pressure brought by the WJC lead the banks to publish the names of thousands of foreign account holders whose accounts had been dormant since 1945 as well as a number of dormant accounts opened by Swiss residents who may have been acting as proxies for Jews in other parts of Europe. One survivor whose father’s name was not on the list but continues to search was quoted as saying “I cannot give up…It has gone too far.”
The dogged persistence of others like her and of the World Jewish Congress was rewarded on this day in 1997.
The story of the resilience of the WJC and the effort to create an effective coalition is ably narrated by John Authers and Richard Wolff in The Victims Fortune.