Swiss Deluged by Claims After List of Wartime Accounts Appears
GENEVA — Edward Dirnfeld, a New Yorker, returned home from a family vacation in Italy on July 23. When he heard that a list of inactive Swiss bank accounts was being published that day, he turned on his computer and immediately checked the Internet for "dormant accounts."
He browsed through the list for Dirnfeld. Nothing. Then he decided to check his paternal grandfather's name. Listed between "Teltsik" and "Terc" was "Tenenbaum, Jos."
"I got the shivers when I saw it," Mr. Dirnfeld recalls. The New York jeweler had little reason to believe anyone from his family would be on the list. Dirnfeld's father - who changed his name from Tenenbaum in the 1930s - had tried twice, once in 1946 and again in the 1960s, to track down money his father said he had deposited in a Zurich bank.
Once he saw Joseph Tenenbaum's name, Dirnfeld joined more than 22,000 people from around the world who are trying to find out whether listed names are indeed their relatives.
In the first four weeks after the July 23 publication of nearly 1,800 names on Swiss accounts dormant since World War II, phone lines in the five claims offices have been flooded with callers, according to the Association of Swiss Bankers, which is coordinating the process.
The outpouring of interest seems unlikely to abate. Another batch of names will be made public Oct. 20. The first group contains the names of foreign account holders. The second list will have mostly names of Swiss residents holding accounts with no activity since 1945. Since many Swiss are believed to have deposited money for friends or relatives from Germany, it is likely that at least some accounts will belong to Holocaust victims.
The upcoming list will have many more names, 20,000 or more, because it will include holders of small passbooks, traditionally opened up by relatives upon the birth of a child, says Sylvie Matile, the association's spokeswoman. But with a large number of little amounts, the list to be disclosed in October will be worth less than the estimated $42 million in the July list, she adds.
As the wheels of Swiss banking grind slowly down the path of disclosure, it seems increasingly unlikely that last month's unprecedented publishing of lists will be the last word. The day after the July lists appeared, for example, one of Switzerland's three top banks announced that it had found an additional $11 million in 55 long-dormant accounts.
Embarrassment mounted as it became known that the mother of the US ambassador to Switzerland, Madelein Kunin, was among those listed.
Accusations were renewed that many of the names and addresses were so obvious that it would have taken only the slightest effort to trace them, and return funds to rightful owners.
Most uncomfortable for Swiss bankers were claims that Nazis or Nazi collaborators were on the list. This seemed to confirm long-held suspicions that Nazis had deposited ill-gotten funds in neutral Switzerland during the war, aided by sympathetic Swiss bankers.
The banker's group plans to investigate all possible Nazi connections, in concert with the historians' commission that is examining Switzerland's wartime role, Ms. Matile says.
The commission, composed of Swiss and international historians, called publicly last week for witnesses to come forward to help track down wartime transfers of money and other assets. It urged former bankers, insurance company employees, jewelry and art dealers, hotel workers, and diplomats to speak up on what they remember.
The nine-member commission was set up by the Swiss government to investigate accusations that Switzerland used its neutrality as a cover to accept wealth that Nazis seized from others.
Those contacting one of the association's claim offices - in New York; Basel, Switzerland; Tel Aviv; Budapest, Hungary; and Sydney, Australia - receive a packet explaining how to file a claim. The kit includes a questionnaire for the claimant to provide all available details.
Banks lift barriers to filing
Dirnfeld has already filed his questionnaire. "The worst part," he notes, "is that we don't have any documents." In the past, tracking dormant funds was complicated by the banks' requirements for a death certificate, an impossibility for Holocaust victims, and a hefty fee. Today those requirements are waived.
Dirnfeld now hopes that he may one day recover the money Joseph Tenenbaum deposited from the sale of a building he owned in Vienna. "I don't know how much money it was," says Dirnfeld in a telephone interview from his New York office.
Dirnfeld can expect a wait of at least a year for his answer. A claims-resolution panel, which has yet to be appointed, must investigate the claims. Their work is to be supervised by a three-member board of trustees to be chaired by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.