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Swiss Banks Seek Owners of Wartime Accounts

ZURICH, March 6 (RFE/RL) -- Swiss banks are making a new attempt to find the heirs of Europeans who deposited money and valuables in Switzerland during World War Two and have not been heard of since.

The Swiss Bankers Association, the umbrella organisation for Swiss banks, says the current search for heirs is concentrated in Germany and countries occupied by Germany during the war, including central and eastern Europe. It concerns accounts opened by foreigners before May 8, 1945, where there has been no word from the owners since that date or for a minimum of ten years.

A spokesman said: "We know the chances are slight that we will find anyone after all these years of Nazi and then communist repression. But it is still possible there are papers gathering dust somewhere that give someone the right to claim the money which was put in a secret account."

The Bankers Association recently polled 400 banks and financial institutions in Switzerland and Liechenstein for information about these pre-1945 accounts. Eventually 36 of them reported a total of 775 accounts and deposits whose owners had "disappeared".

Most of the money is in accounts or deposits opened by Germans or by people in countries occupied by the Nazis. The bankers association says these accounts make up 516 of the 775 reported. They amount to 28.5 million Swiss francs of the 38.7-million-franc total.

The remainder includes 46 accounts with 3.1 million francs from Italy and 213 accounts with 7.1 million francs from other parts of Europe and from outside Europe.

The Bankers Association concedes that the amount involved is much less than the rumored tens of millions hidden by those fleeing from the Nazis or by the leading Nazis who fled at the end of the War.

"Some people still believe there are hundreds of millions of dollars and packages of diamonds and jewellery in the safes of Swiss banks," the spokesman said. "It is simply not true." He said most of the money and valuables hidden by victims of the Nazis were claimed soon after the war. More have been claimed by Central and East Europeans since the collapse of communism. But the spokesman declined to say how much or from which countries. Most of the information is protected by Switzerland's strict laws on bank secrecy.

The question most people would ask is: what happens to the money if no one claims it?

In most cases the money will remain in the accounts for the forseeable future. The Swiss have created a central organisation to help the heirs of the dead who believe there might be money or valuables hidden in Swiss banks. The organisation charges 300 francs to search the files but the banks say the fee will be reduced or eliminated altogether for the needy.

The Swiss also recognise that more than 50 years after the war it may be impossible to provide the papers proving ownership. The banks say that in certain cases they are prepared to accept substitute papers or rely on personal evidence if they match the information in the banks' own files. With an eye on criminals and swindlers they say all all claims will be carefully checked.

The banks also are working closely with international organisations, particularly Jewish organisations, to discover the fate of those who disappeared after opening accounts. The spokesman for the Swiss Bankers Association says these organisations also will help in deciding what to do with the money and valuables left by those who are known to be dead and for which there are no claimants. He declined to speculate on where it might be assigned.