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Swiss to Aid in Recovery of Nazi Victims' Assets

Europe: Banks will help trace accounts left by those killed in Holocaust. Heirs are told not to expect billions.

September 16, 1996|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — As a boy, Sebastian Kornhauser remembers being fascinated by his grandmother's tales of life back in Poland more than half a century ago. But over time, the more he learned, the angrier he got.

"What happened to us is an outrage. I want to legally reclaim what has been taken from my family," the Londoner said.

At 21, he may be the youngest player in a suddenly revived quest to recover gold the Nazis stole from conquered nations, Jewish businesses and individual Jews during World War II.

Billions remain in the secure and quiet vaults of Swiss banks, according to a British government report published last week on the heels of new American research. And the Swiss, abandoning their habitual refuge in bank secrecy laws, say they will try to help unravel dormant accounts of Jews who died in the Holocaust.

Meeting today, the Swiss parliament is set to approve legislation allowing the investigation of Jewish assets entrusted to Swiss banks between 1933 and 1945. Auditors for a joint commission of Swiss bankers and Jewish groups headed by Paul A. Volcker, a former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, will examine the dormant accounts.

On Wednesday, during an official visit to Switzerland, British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind is scheduled to press Swiss authorities for an accounting and restitution of the gold and other assets lost by the families of Nazi victims--accounts built for survival by German and East European Jews who never got a chance to use them.

"It's not fair that history and Germans should steal so much from my family and that I should be told that nobody knows where it is," Kornhauser said. He says his grandfather Jan, a prominent jeweler in Krakow, had an emergency bank account in Switzerland that is now lost. Gone too are the gold and jewels that invading Nazis ransacked from the family business.

But bankers in Switzerland--which was neutral during the war--say that reality is not apt to match popular imagination of a rightful balancing of the books.

"We have every interest in settling the matter once and for all," Mathis Cabiallavetta, chief executive of Union Bank of Switzerland, told reporters in Singapore last week. But, he cautioned, people expecting to find "billions and zillions" in bullion are likely to be disappointed.

The British government report, produced under pressure from Jewish organizations, estimates that about $500 million in German gold was in Swiss banks when the war ended. That is about $4 billion at today's prices. On the theory that something was better than nothing, the report says, after the war the Allies negotiated the return of about $60 million of the original $500 million for distribution to European governments whose reserves had been looted.

The vast majority of the gold came from the national treasuries of countries that the Nazis had conquered. Some had been stolen or extorted from Jews and other victims of the Third Reich. Most was melted down and recast into new, anonymous ingots. Some may have contained the melted jewelry and teeth fillings of Holocaust victims.

"It is the easiest thing in the world to destroy the identity of gold," a British Treasury official wrote after the war, commenting on the German practice of stamping the new ingots as Third Reich reserves.

"Rivers of gold flowed out of Nazi Germany. Its banks were in Switzerland," said Greville Janner, a member of Parliament and chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust here.

Janner said the government report raises as many questions as it answers. Rifkind replies: "There is much which we still do not know. . . . Many secrets were doubtless buried with their Nazi keepers."

The Swiss Bankers Assn. says that a recent survey of its members uncovered 775 accounts dormant since 1945 with about $40 million in them. Volcker's team will focus on accounts like these on a case-by-case basis, with the burden of proof resting heavily on claimants.

"As a lawyer advising descendants of Holocaust victims, I have spoken to many clients, now usually in their 70s, who have very reasonable grounds to believe that their fathers or grandfathers made provision for their families in Switzerland before the war, but so far none of them has been able to identify the banks or details of the accounts," London attorney Hans H. Marcus said.

The British report notes that Allied negotiators in 1945 excluded the possibility of private claims because they "would be small in comparison with governmental claims . . . and extremely difficult to prosecute."

Now events have come full circle. Even if family heirs cannot be identified, Jewish activists say, there is a lot of good that could be done with the dormant money.

"It should go to help Jewish groups and organizations of Holocaust survivors rather than to governments," said Judith Hassan, director of the 675-member Holocaust Survivors' Center here.

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