L'Chaim

Jewish World Review / August 17, 1998 / 25 Menachem-Av, 5758

Fair Settlement For Survivors of the Holocaust

By Richard Z. Chesnoff

SETTLEMENTS OF DISPUTES rarely leave everybody happy. But the historic $1.25 billion agreement reached in Brooklyn Federal Court on Wednesday between major Swiss commercial banks and representatives of Holocaust survivors is not only a major victory for the survivors, it's an equitable resolution of a struggle to force the Swiss banks to face the ignoble truths of their past.

Although some Swiss still grouse about any settlement, there's little doubt this is a great deal for the banks. The settlement will save them the billions they could have lost as a result of planned American sanctions and class-action suits both of which are to be dropped under the terms of the settlement. Sanctions alone threatened the stability of the Swiss banking industry.

Just hours after the announcement, I spoke with an elated Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, which initiated the struggle to press the Swiss banks toward a settlement. "What we have here," he said, "is a triumph for justice and historic memory."

The Swiss banks will finally pay back at least part of the family savings that Holocaust victims deposited before the war moneys the banks conveniently swallowed after the depositors were murdered by the Nazis. They also will refund some of the millions in Nazi plunder that the Germans and their agents looted from European Jews, then stashed in Swiss vaults.

Payments will be made by the Swiss over the next four years. The beneficiaries will be, first and foremost, Holocaust survivors, many of whom are aged and indigent. In some cases, heirs will benefit. The disbursement mechanisms are being worked out by the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the Joint Distribution Committee, both of which operate worldwide. Some $32 million already is available from another Swiss fund. And I'm told that next week an 800 number will be published for American survivors to call to apply for immediate assistance.

An enormous effort went into this triumph. Immense credit is due New York's Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, whose Senate Banking Committee pressed the Swiss banks to come clean. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat led a government team that uncovered some of the history that persuaded the Swiss to finally fess up. But I think the biggest mazel tovgoes to the World Jewish Congress. Its president, Edgar Bronfman, its secretary general, Israel Singer, and Executive Director Steinberg were the first, driving, tireless force behind this 53-year battle for justice.

But no one is resting on his laurels. As Steinberg puts it: "What we have now is a template for resolution for other Holocaust-era assets in some dozen other countries." The new goal: Persuade the world's insurance companies, many of which have never paid death benefits to the heirs of policyholders, to make their own settlement. And then there are the other countries of Europe that conveniently absorbed what was left of the Nazi loot. Those nations include France, the Netherlands, Poland and even Austria, which to this day tries to tell the world it was a victim of Nazism, not an enthusiastic partner.

The Dutch and French have established their own investigative commissions, which have yet to reach conclusions. Meanwhile, a major class-action suit has been initiated against French banks by New York lawyer Kenneth McCallion and his associates representing French-born Holocaust survivors.

The struggle for justice continues.


JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News.

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