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 long-dead 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 stonewalling, 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 name 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. Adds the center's founder, Rabbi Marvin Hier, ""The perpetrators no doubt had a lot more money than the victims.'' Georg Krayer, the Swiss Banking Association chairman who only a year ago told NEWSWEEK ""there was not a single slip of paper showing that any [Nazi money] was really paid into a Swiss bank,'' had the task of delivering that proof to the cameras last week. At a news conference, he was contrite: ""I have found no fig leaf big enough to cover the negligence of my colleagues in the postwar era.''
To the banks' credit, the list also shows they didn't just conceal Jewish-owned accounts. They stonewalled everybody. Probably fewer than 20 percent of the names on the list are Jewish, says Zuroff. Still, many Jewish Holocaust survivors with Swiss claims are angry at being left off the list, raising the question of how much more money there might be.
The most likely answer is, not much. Swiss bankers insist that this list of foreign-owned accounts is nearly complete, though some 20,000 unclaimed Swiss-owned accounts will be published this fall. In dollars, those amount to just a fraction of the foreigners' holdings, Swiss sources say. ""There will be thousands of others who will never see their family's name appear,'' says Under Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat. ""Why? Because 50 years have passed, permitting lawyers, agents and other intermediaries to cash in those accounts.''
Michael Hausfeld, a lead attorney in a class-action suit pending against the Swiss in New York, said the timing of last week's published list was suspicious, coming a week before a district judge is to rule on whether to proceed. Hausfeld says the Swiss want to make it seem as if they are resolving claims out of court. The Swiss deny that, and now they have a surprising ally: Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman who heads an international commission overseeing the investigation. Volcker, in a recent letter, told U.S. District Judge Edward Korman that the suit may obstruct his own commission's efforts to audit and distribute the account funds. ""We will run into conflicting claims, no doubt,'' Volcker told NEWSWEEK.
Madeleine Kunin won't be directly involved in those decisions. And she says she sees no need to recuse herself now from the larger issue in Bern. ""I can't tell you that I'm without emotion in this, but I have learned to compartmentalize,'' she says. ""Obviously in this case ... I don't represent myself, I represent the administration.'' Even so, she is more determined than ever to find out what happened in the past.