Zurich Bank's Ties with Nazis Detailed in Documents
Oct. 16, 1996
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Senate Banking Committee investigators hunting for Jewish bank accounts missing from World War II have uncovered newly declassified intelligence documents describing how some Swiss banks dealt with the Nazis.
Among the most detailed information in the documents is the case of a Zurich-based bank, Johann Wehrli & Co. that showed:
_Gestapo founder Hermann Goering used Wehrli bank for his personal finances, and his accounts were handled by the bank's manager, a Nazi sympathizer, during the war.
_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 prohibited 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.
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.
Sen. Alfonse 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 today 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 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.
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 Wehrli 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-Allies _ 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.
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.