December 11, 1996
An update on the effort to retrieve funds of World War II Holocaust victims that may be in Swiss banks. There was a House hearing today in Washington about that issue. Kwame Holman reports.
KWAME HOLMAN: This morning, the House Banking Committee joined investigations already underway into what happened to billions of dollars in assets deposited in Swiss banks in the World War II era. New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato was the first to testify before his House colleagues. He said the probes are necessary because, for years, Swiss bankers have refused to tell Holocaust survivors what became of assets deposited for them by family members fleeing the Nazis.
SEN. ALFONSE D'AMATO, Chairman, Senate Banking Committee: Why this hearing now, 50 years, why not let it go? And let me attempt, if I might, simply say that because people are entitled to justice, because there are alive people today who I believe the records will show have rightful claims, because that injustice is being perpetuated today by an almost arrogant, contemptuous establishment that has repeatedly rebuffed individual efforts of people. Mr. Chairman, it would appear that during the war, Swiss banks and the Swiss government assisted and advanced the plundering of financial assets of Holocaust victims and their survivors by first presenting Switzerland as neutral in the war and a financial save haven. Swiss banks invited and, indeed, encouraged Jews and other persecuted people to entrust funds and family valuables to them for safekeeping. In fact, the Swiss government enacted bank secrecy laws in order to protect the identity of account holders such as European Jews from prosecution by making disclosure punishable as a crime. And in response to these overtures and official actions, European Jews and others throughout the world entrusted their assets to Swiss banks and other financial companies to ensure their families' futures. Ironically, the very secrecy laws passed to attract funds and protect the identity of depositors from the Nazi regime have been the very instrument used to deny survivors and heirs access to funds deposited by them on their behalf. It becomes clearer now that this trust was betrayed.
KWAME HOLMAN: Commerce Department Undersecretary Stuart Eizenstat is coordinating U.S. Government efforts to identify Holocaust victims' assets.
STUART EIZENSTAT, Undersecretary of Commerce: We must acknowledge--although attempts have been made to revisit this issue ever since--the frustration of Holocaust survivors and their heirs that this issue now, almost 50 years later, is still with us. The Swiss, themselves, revisited this issue periodically, most recently in 1995, to determine the extent of remaining dormant accounts and heirless assets. In February of this year, the Swiss Bank Association announced that there were $32 million that they had found, an additional 775 dormant accounts open prior to 1945, although not all were of European origin.
KWAME HOLMAN: A year ago, Swiss bankers offered that $32 million to the World Jewish Congress to distribute to Holocaust victims and families. They refused it, though, citing estimates assets were in the billions. Edgar Bronfman is president of the Congress.
EDGAR BRONFMAN, President, World Jewish Congress: At that meeting I was told by the bankers that "We do not wish to hold onto one franc that is not ours." I told them that that is something we both could agree upon. I must report to you today, however, that in the passage of that year not one franc has been transferred as restitution. I do not suggest that there have been no constructive developments. But to be candid, sir, it is hard to deny that the positive developments have principally resulted from the moral force of international public pressure. Until now, the pace has been slower than that of a snail. I hope, Ambassador Borer, that this will change. Mr. Chairman, to put it concisely, we are seeking moral and material restitution. During the past six months, we have been undertaking research in U.S. archives to determine the facts behind what is undoubtedly the greatest robbery in the history of mankind.
KWAME HOLMAN: In a rare appearance by a diplomat before a committee of Congress, Swiss Ambassador Thomas Borer defended his government and its banking industry, which have lifted bank secrecy laws to facilitate their investigation of the role of Swiss financial institutions during the war.
THOMAS BORER, Swiss Task Force on Nazi Victims: Nothing is more important for the people and government of Switzerland than establishing the complete truth in this matter as swiftly and humanely as possible. We are fully aware that nothing less than our reputation as an honorable country and reliable friend is at stake. First of all, to get to the facts as quickly as possible, the government of Switzerland has proposed new legislation of unprecedented nature that was put on a fast track and unanimously passed by both Houses of the Swiss parliament. Final passage is expected the day after tomorrow. This new law establishes an independent commission of experts. They will conduct a comprehensive investigation into all aspects of Switzerland's role as a financial center during and around the war years and its relations with Nazi Germany. All money, all assets found by it will return immediately to the rightful owners once they are traced. And you have my personal commitment that untraceable assets will be returned to charities. We view this as a moral imperative.
KWAME HOLMAN: Former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker heads an international group working with Swiss bankers to find Holocaust victims' assets, but that investigation and the others will take months at least. Holocaust victims appearing before the committee said time is of the essence.
ALICER FISHER, Holocaust Survivor: My name is Alice Burger Fisher. I was born in Czechoslovakia. My family was a very well privileged family. I had two younger brothers. Our home was filled with expensive artwork by well-known artists. The only reason for telling you all this is to explain the beautiful work for which my father worked so hard for his family. All this was destroyed by the Nazis, and our money has been kept from us by the Swiss banks. My father told me that he opened Swiss bank account for the family, that he make trust funds for the three children, and dowry for me. I remember my father's trips, and I also remember him taking much of our jewelry to Switzerland. I am not here to condemn the Swiss people of today. They have to come to grips with their past. But the Swiss banks must be condemned and their activities exposed for what they were profiting off of Holocaust victims. I am asking for justice for my whole family who were persecuted because they were Jews and for my father in particular, who was tortured and beaten because of his trips to Switzerland to save his life's work for his family's future. Yet, the Swiss banks have denied me and thousands of other survivor family members our money.
KWAME HOLMAN: Banking Committee members pledged to Fisher and other Holocaust survivors to keep investigating until every dollar possible is returned.