At Last a Tally of Pain: Nazi or Jew? It Didn't Matter to the Swiss

By Hirsh, Michael | Newsweek, August 4, 1997 | Go to article overview

At Last a Tally of Pain: Nazi or Jew? It Didn't Matter to the Swiss


Hirsh, Michael, Newsweek


American ambassador Madeleine Kunin was sitting in her office in Bern, Switzerland, last Wednesday morning, casually scanning the Financial Times. Suddenly she found herself caught in a diplomat's worst nightmare -- a direct, emotional conflict between her personal life and her official duties. There, among the 1,756 foreign owners of World War II-era "dormant" accounts published by Swiss banks was her own longdead mother, Renee May. "Needless to say, I was very surprised," Kunin told Newsweek. "It gave me a strange feeling to be linked in this way."

Kunin says her Swiss-born mother, who died 27 years ago after fleeing Switzerland for the United States in 1940, never told her she had a Swiss account. But today, like hundreds of others in the 28 countries where the list was published, the ambassador is puzzling over why her mother never tried to claim the account -- if it is indeed hers -- and why the Swiss kept quiet about it for 50 years. Meanwhile, she must also act in her role as a key U.S. government official who is pressing the Swiss to divulge the details of their complicity in the Holocaust. Staying objective won't be easy: Kunin was intimately involved in issuing a damning State Department report in May on Swiss laundering of Nazi loot. Still, she tries to be diplomatic about the issue. "My story," Kunin says, "is just a small part of what this is really all about ... I think the banks are to be commended, even though it's been a long wait."

Too long, for many. Indeed, for the Swiss, it was yet another public-relations disaster in a year full of them. "The list is a catastrophe," said Jean Ziegler, a University of Geneva sociologist. "They tried to make a good impression on public opinion, and on American opinion in particular. And they failed completely." The Swiss banks had hoped that, by waiving their prized bank-secrecy laws after years of stonewalking, the list would help put the Nazi past behind them. Instead it supplied some of the best evidence yet of how deeply they were caught up in that past.

Why? Because the list didn't just contain the names of refugees from Hitler's Europe, like Kunin's family, or other Holocaust survivors. The accounts represented a whole, ghastly cross section of the Holocaust -- Jews and Nazi looters both, murderers and victims -- frozen together for 50 years in the icy indifference of the Swiss banking system. Alongside the mine of Kunin's mother and hundreds of other Jews were account holders like Vojtech Tuka, the Slovakian prime minister who sent thousands of jews to their deaths; Hans Wendland, believed to be the German art dealer who looted French paintings, and Heinrich Hofmann, the name of Hitler's photographer. (Tuka and Hofmann died soon after the war; Wendland in the '60s.)

The Swiss list, amounting to some $42 million in holdings, was the first documentation offered up by the banks themselves that they accepted Nazi loot in individual accounts, says Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem.

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