An independent panel investigating whether Swiss banks hoarded the wealth of Holocaust victims announced today that it had discovered nearly 54,000 accounts linked to people persecuted by the Nazis, a number far greater than the banks ever acknowledged.
In an exhaustive report released after three years of research, the committee, headed by former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker, said it could find no clear evidence that Swiss banks conspired to steal money deposited by Jews who may have perished in the Holocaust or engaged in the "systematic destruction of records" to hide their assets.
But the report criticized some banks for "questionable and deceitful actions" through callous treatment of victims and their heirs and "a general lack of diligence" in tracing the origins of dormant accounts. It concluded the banks were "grossly insensitive to the special conditions of the Holocaust" in ways that were "misleading in intent and unfair in result."
The Volcker commission, which included representatives from Swiss banks and Jewish groups, was set up in 1996 to find the truth about assets deposited by Holocaust victims. The controversy prompted a wrenching reassessment of Switzerland's wartime role that uncovered broad financial collaboration with the Nazi regime.
As recently as 1995, Swiss banks insisted that a review of their records found only 775 dormant accounts worth about $31 million. That claim provoked outrage among Jewish groups, notably the World Jewish Congress, which said that the banks were hoarding assets from Holocaust victims worth as much as $7 billion.
Facing the threat of crippling commercial boycotts, the Swiss banks agreed to set up and fund an impartial commission headed by Volcker in an effort to clear their name. While the long-awaited report exonerates the banks of any criminal conspiracy to steal the assets, it emphasizes their tendency to hide behind the country's secrecy laws to avoid answering questions about who owned the hidden assets.
"They were lackadaisical, to say the least," Volcker said in an interview. "The banks had no incentive to find out the truth about the assets because they felt they should protect the honor of Switzerland. They could have solved this problem a long time ago if they really wanted to."
Volcker said the committee was able to trace about 60 percent of the accounts that were in Swiss banks when the war ended in 1945. They created a dual database that matched names on 4.1 million accounts with a list of 5.5 million Holocaust victims compiled with help from the Yad Vashem museum in Israel and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
After combing through the records of the 254 Swiss banks operating at the time of the war, the committee came up with a list of 53,886 accounts with "possible or probable relationships" to Holocaust victims. A footnote in the report says the value of the accounts could be as high as $1.3 billion, but Volcker said records were too sketchy to make a precise estimate.
He said the committee recommended publishing the names of 25,000 account holders who were most likely Holocaust victims so their heirs can recover the assets. Any funds found will be compounded 10 times to compensate for interest. Many of the accounts are believed to be minuscule in value, partly because they have been eaten away by bank charges over the years.
While Volcker stressed that no accurate value could be placed on the accounts, he said all members of the panel agreed that any claims resulting from their report should be covered by the $1.25 billion fund set up by Switzerland's two largest banks last year in a settlement with Jewish organizations.
Israel Singer, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress and a member of the panel, said the report vindicated the efforts to get Swiss banks to open their archives, confront the truth and return the funds. "This is no small result. It shows that all the claims that were made were just. And it shows that last year's settlement was certainly necessary and at least fair," he said.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said Switzerland deserves no special praise for its generosity in agreeing to settle accounts with Holocaust victims.
"This is not the story of a charitable Switzerland that out of its own goodwill is giving away funds to the survivors of the Holocaust when none was due," he said. "This is the story of money being returned to the rightful owners. This is not an act of charity, it is an act of justice."
Georg Krayer, president of the Swiss Bankers Association, said the report absolved the banks from any criminal liability. "The dramatic and sweeping accusations leveled against Swiss banks four years ago have proved to be unfounded," he said.
Krayer apologized to the families of Holocaust victims "for all the disappointments and hurt feelings" that banks may have caused in their past failures to help them seek redress for the missing assets. But he said the report's findings proved that "with the exception of a few isolated cases, the banks' conduct during the period in question was correct."
CAPTION: Paul Volcker, left, head of the panel investigating Swiss banks, confers with Israel Singer, of the World Jewish Congress, in Zurich.