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AS THE NAZIS blitzkrieged across Europe, conquering one nation after another early in World War II, they plundered central banks and herded Jews and other victims into concentration camps.

Hitler's armies looted what gold they could find, whether in the bank vaults or the jewelry and teeth of their murdered victims. Ever efficient, the Nazis apparently shipped the gold to Berlin, melted it down and stamped it as Reichsbank gold. Along with other stolen assets, some of it was then deposited in Swiss banks.

Those were booming days for Swiss banks. As the prewar clouds darkened, money, jewelry and gold from European Jews and others fearful of Hitler's rising power had poured in, too. Often, these assets were deposited in secret accounts under assumed names to shield identities from the Nazis.

Not surprisingly, then, one question that has echoed quietly across the last half-century is this: Whatever happened to all the money, all the gold and other assets placed in those Swiss banks both by the Nazis and the fearful Jews?

Recently, the question has exploded across international borders as demands grew for an answer to nasty suspicions.

The World Jewish Congress began to press for the truth. Earlier this year, the Senate Banking Committee, chaired by Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., launched a probe. A few weeks ago the British Foreign Office said that Switzerland returned only 10 percent of all the gold it held during the war. That's a total of $6 billion in today's values.

In a hearing the other day, the Senate committee heard testimony from survivors of the Holocaust about the difficulty, if not impossibility, of reclaiming money put in the banks decades ago by parents and relatives who were later murdered in the death camps.

One witness recalled a Swiss banker telling her a death certificate would be required before the money deposited by her father, who died in a concentration camp, would be released. What that really amounts to is the bank keeping the money. It also amounts to theft.

However late and grudgingly, Swiss banks and the government of Switzerland, a neutral nation fearful of Hitler's power in World War II, have begun to respond to the pressures to come clean.

They have begun their own investigations, but they contend it will take up to five years to ensure definitive answers. Without continued international pressure, it could take considerably longer.

It is important for the world to know the truth, and for what looted money is still held to be returned to the rightful owners who survive. The rest might go into an international fund to somehow compensate all Holocaust victims.

With all the secrecy and obfuscation, no one is certain how many valuables remain hidden. Following the insidious trail to the answer could become important not only for cleaning up the secret accounts but for scrubbing a stain from the record of this prim nation that once slept with the Nazi evil.

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