Swiss Banks Drain Nazi-era Accounts With Surcharges

Posted: December 02, 1998

The holes in dormant Swiss bank accounts seem to grow bigger with age. And anyone who hopes that the 44-nation conference in Washington will mark a successful end to the investigation of Nazi-era bank accounts might want to consider my experience.

In July 1997, the Swiss Bankers Association released an alphabetical list of thousands of unclaimed accounts dating to World War II. This list, and another that followed a few months later, appeared in the world's leading newspapers.

To my surprise, my name was on the first list, along with the names of my late parents and brother. No one in my family, including my father, in whose name the account was held, had ever mentioned its existence. With the publication of the list, the Swiss banks were soliciting claims from the would-be beneficiaries. I filed my claim.

Within a few months, Ernst & Young, the international accounting firm, sent me a document showing the name of the Swiss bank (Schweizerischer Bankverein), the account number and the amount of money held in it - an amount far smaller than I had expected.

My father had been a well-to-do manufacturer in Yugoslavia before the war, and in 1940 he settled with his family in the United States, thus saving us from the horror of the 1941 Nazi occupation. The Swiss bank account must have been small enough for my father to have forgotten about it or to have given up hope of recovering the money. Still, with some 56 years of compound interest accumulation, the bank's pitifully small figure didn't make sense. It seemed to me that in all these years, even a small deposit would have grown to a substantial sum. Maybe this was not an interest-bearing account, I wondered. But that made even less sense, knowing my father.

My repeated calls to Ernst & Young in Europe and subsequently to the Claims Resolution Tribunal, led by Paul A. Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, yielded little except confirmation that my father had opened the account in 1940. Additional details would be provided in due time, I was advised.

That time came in October, when a fairly large package arrived by registered mail from Switzerland. In it was a copy of the account's opening document, with my family's signatures - including mine, executed with the embellishments of a 14-year-old's penmanship - but there was no information on the deposit amount or the type of account.

There was also a 10-year review of the account (1986 to 1996) that showed no interest additions; instead, it showed hefty bank service-charge deductions - the reason the balance, over 56 years, had dwindled to a pittance.

I called the signer of the cover letter in Switzerland and immediately discovered the self-serving and self-enriching nature of Swiss banks' vaunted secrecy. I was told that Swiss banks need not divulge the amounts initially deposited or any prior account data, except for the last 10 years.

While my account is practically at rock bottom after decades of service charges, how many smaller ``dormant'' accounts are today entirely wiped out by the Swiss banks' service-charge withdrawals? The names of the owners of these accounts would not have appeared on any list published around the world.

Paul H. Laric is a retired public relations executive. This first appeared in the New York Times.

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