In May, 1945, Magda Hafter was down to 70 pounds, a skeletal, scarlet fever-wracked survivor of Auschwitz, when she first tackled the issue of compensation for her family's assets lost in World War II. And she did it with verve. Two near-misses with the gas chamber, beatings by Nazi guards, and starvation had all failed to break the 18-year-old Jewish girl's spirit. "Out! Out! Out!" she shrieked at the interloper who'd moved into the general store of her father Jeno Kelemen, in Zemianskia Olca, Czechoslavakia. "You gave my father 48 hours! I give you 24!"
Hafter got back the business -- but not her parents or brother, who she presumes perished in the camps. But, like most of the estimated 120,000 Holocaust survivors now in the U.S., she never recovered the bulk of her family's assets: a Swiss bank account and two insurance policies. These were resources whose identifying numbers Hafter's father had risked his life to record secretly for his children on a storeroom wall. But after the war, the storeroom was in ruins. And Hafter says Swiss bankers dismissed her subsequent inquiries with stonewalling and arrogance -- even demanding her father's "death certificate."
The family's Italian insurer, Assicurazioni Generali, meanwhile, confirmed this year that two policies existed but argued that communist expropriation of its assets had canceled its obligation. Hafter's efforts, like most survivors', seemed hopeless.
Until now. Last month, two Swiss banks, UBS and Credit Suisse, agreed to pay survivors $1.25 billion to settle the claims of an estimated 400,000 to 800,000 people worldwide. The agreement ended a class action in which Hafter was a plaintiff. And there's more: In August, Generali agreed to pay $100 million to settle another lawsuit contesting unpaid policies -- affecting an additional several hundred thousand survivors and heirs. Also that month, U.S. distribution was launched for the Swiss banks' $32 million "Humanitarian Fund."
The flurry of activity has continued, with a series of lawsuits filed by former Nazi slave laborers against carmakers Volkswagen, BMW, Audi, and Daimler-Benz; against Siemens, the electronic company; and against Krupp, the German steel giant. The 50th anniversary of VE Day in 1995 was only the initial emotional spark. Since then, revealing documents from the Swiss bank investigation have come to light, while major figures like Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Seagram Chairman Edgar Bronfman have lent their clout to the restitution effort.
And not a moment too soon: Saddest of all is the stark reality that the average Holocaust survivor is now 81.
What can you do if you're among those pursuing financial compensation and property restitution? A good starting point is the New York State Banking Dept.'s Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO). The office offers "one-stop shopping" for bank, insurance, and stolen-art claims, says Director Catherine Lillie. And it's open to all claimants.
Some 3,700 inquiries this past year have generated 1,700 claims, two-thirds bank-related, one-third for insurance. So far, only three checks have been cut, and Lillie won't divulge amounts. But in one case, Swiss television described a $500,000 sum.
Claimants to the HCPO can expect an initial two-hour interview, with phone follow-up. The office's historians, linguists, and experts in banking and insurance are trained to "whittle away at some of the noise," says Lillie -- whose background combines an Oxford University degree in German literature and time on Wall Street. So, while an elderly survivor may remember little of her parents' finances 60 years ago, she might recollect a prized childhood piggybank -- whose logo signaled a particular insurer.
Staffers gently elicit such memories and help with the copious forms for charitable funds, pensions, and Swiss Bankers Assn. (SBA) action on dormant accounts (see below). Even claimants whose names do not appear on SBA lists may apply. "No one should think they missed a deadline," says Elizabeth McCaul, acting N.Y. State Banking Dept. superintendent.
Here are some more specific resources:
The Swiss Banks' Humanitarian and Victims' Settlement Funds: After years of indifference, the Swiss banks have acted: On Aug. 17, the banks' Humanitarian Fund was opened to U.S. Jewish survivors. The World Jewish Congress (WJC) is handling distribution of the $32 million set aside for America. That means $500 per survivor if half apply. Applications are open through Nov. 17, and criteria for "need" is self-certified. Some $20 million has already been paid to 20,000 "double victims" from Eastern Europe who, during the Soviet era, were prevented from claiming German pensions that were then available; 12% of the $190 total is for non-Jewish victims, primarily Gypsies.
Elan Steinberg, president of the WJC -- which has been criticized for foot-dragging on the fund's distribution -- expects to release details of the UBS-Credit Suisse $1.25 billion distribution in three months. The agreement calls for the banks to pay the first $250 million by November and $333 million annually after that. A federal judge must first approve distribution plans. With this fund, eligibility won't be based on need. Says Steinberg: "This is not a 'humanitarian' fund. "This is reparations, this is restitution." A possible complication: A special commission headed by former Fed Chairman Paul A. Volcker recently found that the banks held dormant accounts worth only $71 million. But plaintiffs' attorney Michael Housefeld is confident that won't have any bearing on the settlement. The dormant accounts are only a small part of the damages, the others being "looted and slave-labor assets," he says.
Dormant Swiss Accounts: Twice during 1997, the SBA published lists of names connected to dormant accounts. And, despite a March, 1998, deadline, the association is still taking applications through its U.S. partner, Ernst & Young, says SBA spokesman Jeffrey Taufield. So far, he says, the banks have received 7,000 claims and turned over the majority of them to a Claims Tribunal comprising representatives from the SBA and Jewish organizations. Money paid out will now be credited to the global settlement. "The banks have recommended that over 300 of the claims be paid on the fast track," Taufield says -- "fast track" meaning that neither problems confirming the claim nor competing claims exist.
However, only 10 to 20 payouts have so far occurred, adds Taufield, who blames Tribunal bureauracy. "The banks have no interest in keeping the money," he says. "If the claims are not made, they're going to give it to charity."
The Generali Fund: On June 15, Generali, one of Europe's largest prewar insurers, announced a humanitarian fund "in memory of Generali insureds in East and Central Europe who perished in the Holocaust." This $12 million fund, based in Jerusalem, is for "ex gratia" payments to beneficiaries and assistance to survivors, but not fulfillment of heirs' 50-year-old policies. As recently as February, for example, Magda Hafter's petition to collect on her father's two policies was denied. But under the threat of a federal lawsuit, Generali on Aug. 19 announced a $100 million settlement of a class action, $85 million of which will go to settle claims, and $15 million to humanitarian aid.
A week later, European insurers Allianz Holding of Germany, AXA Groupe of Fance, Der Anker of Austria, and Swiss companies Winterthur, Baseler, and Zurich Insurance announced a commmission to resolve claims and examine companies' liability. This doesn't mean survivors and their supporters are satisfied. N.Y. Banking Superintendent McCaul, for one, says she won't soon forgive Europe's insurers. "Every response we've seen from these companies so far has been nonsensitive, legalistic, and officious," McCaul says.
The Volkswagen Slave Labor Fund: On Sept. 11, VW responded to the lawsuit against it with the announcement of a $12 million compensation fund. However, this fund is not expected to move plaintiffs to drop their action.
Article 2, Hardship and Goodwill funds: The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany administers compensation claims for survivors worldwide. Many in the West already receive postwar-created so-called BEG pensions from Germany. More recently, the Conference has begun administering funds for survivors in and from Eastern Europe. The 1980 Hardship Fund provides one $3,000 payment to victims who lived under Nazi occupation. Article 2 of the 1990 German Reunification Agreement provides concentration camp and labor camp survivors $300-a-month pensions. Both remain open to new applicants. "We still get 30,000 applications a year," a spokesman says. The Goodwill Fund, for East Germany property claims, however, closes Dec. 31.
Stolen Art: On Sept. 10, Austrian Culture Minister Elisabeth Gehrer announced a draft law to force Austrian museums to return work stolen from Jews, a move considered to be a major breakthrough. Closer to home, private groups are also working on art claims. The WJC's Commission for Art Recovery -- with 40 applicants so far -- is one of them. The WJC shares information with an organization called the Art Loss Register, which specializes in uniting owners with stolen works by cross-checking claims against auction sales. The commission is also setting up a database to cross-register claimants' names with old insurance and Nazi records. Included in the claims are such multimillion-dollar canvases as a Monet landscape and a Pintoretto Holy Family.
The Nazi Persecutees Fund: Furthest over the horizon is an international fund for the "double victims," set up by the U.S., British, and French governments. (Norway alone has announced its own in-country fund.) Already, Washington has contributed $1 million. And, says U.S. State Dept. staffer Bennett Freeman: "We're hoping the fund can be established and functioning later in the year."