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Zurich Bank’s Ties with Nazis Detailed in Documents

October 15, 1996 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ As an investigation broadens into missing Jewish bank accounts during World War II, old intelligence documents are giving startling new details of the extent of Swiss banks’ dealings with Nazis.

Among the most detailed information in recently declassified documents is the case of a Zurich-based bank, Johann Wehrli & Co.:

_Gestapo founder Hermann Goering used Wehrli bank for his personal finances, and his accounts were handled by the bank’s manager during World War II, a Nazi sympathizer.

_One Wehrli account _ named after a Nazi martyr _ held money, property titles and other assets looted from Jews in Germany and other countries occupied by the Nazis.

_The State Department tried to place the Wehrli bank on a list of companies banned from doing business with the allies. But the British government urged against that, citing Wehrli as a valuable source of intelligence.

It is well-documented that Switzerland and its banks, despite their neutrality, traded with Nazis during World War II. Switzerland was surrounded by hostile countries and feared a Nazi invasion.

The Wehrli bank apparently no longer exists. The Swiss Bankers Association has no record of it, and a Swiss weekly newspaper reported in June that it was liquidated after the war.

While several historians said the Wehrli case doesn’t necessarily describe anything new, it offers insight into a sudden revival in international interest into the missing millions of European Jews.

Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato, R-N.Y., who criticizes Swiss banks for responding slowly to relatives seeking lost accounts, held one hearing on it last spring and plans a second Wednesday in New York. There he will gather testimony from Jews pressing claims against Swiss banks.

In addition, the Swiss parliament’s lower house voted recently to create an independent commission to investigate the banks’ role during World War II. And the Swiss Bankers Association and World Jewish Congress have appointed an investigative panel headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

The State Department said earlier this month it would look into its own diplomatic actions and interactions with the Swiss after the war.

Jewish groups claim Swiss banks hold $7 billion in assets and interest belonging to Jews, some of whom were killed by the Nazis. The Swiss banks say they have found about $32 million in unclaimed assets that could have belonged to European Jews or other non-Swiss residents during the war.

A June 12, 1945, confidential report from the U.S. Foreign Service in Bern described a trust fund at the Wehrli Bank ``in which were placed the assets and titles of property taken by the Nazis from Jewish businessmen in Germany and the occupied countries.″

This report, recently declassified by the National Archives, and others were provided to The Associated Press.

The trust fund was named after Gustloff Stiftung, who led Switzerland’s Nazi party and was murdered in 1935. He was considered one of the party’s ``martyrs.″

The bank’s owner, Johann Wehrli, served as intermediary in Goering’s 1938 purchase of an Austrian munitions factory. Wehrli’s son told State Department officials in 1944 that ``he understands that the Herman Goering interests had purchased the munitions factory, but he could not recall exactly with whom his father had negotiated.″

Another document cites secondhand reports that a Goering staff member visited Wehrli bank ``nearly every month to look after Goering’s private financial interests here.″ Other documents discuss Wehrli bank’s dealings with Goering’s art agent.

While Johann Wehrli told U.S. officials he was pro-ally _ despite his involvement in the munitions factory deal _ he was in semi-retirement during World War II and the bank was being managed by Karl Kessler, identified in documents as a Nazi or a sympathizer.

Kessler reportedly administered Goering’s private financial affairs, that sources estimated to total about $4 million, documents said. A report by Leland Harrison of the U.S. delegation in Bern during World War II addressed the Kessler-Goering connection, citing information from an unnamed Swiss businessman.

In 1943, the United States placed Kessler on a list of people banned from Allied business dealings because of Nazi connections. The United States also recommended adding Johann Wehrli and his bank to the restricted list unless Kessler was fired. But the British government objected, saying Wehrli had provided important intelligence on German financial activity.

Despite such reports, a 1945 audit by accounting firm Price Waterhouse in Zurich suggested the Wehrli bank was not in large-scale business with the Nazis.

Swiss officials say they do not know if Kessler is still alive.