A Flawed Crusade for Holocaust Justice

By Neal Sandler


Inside the Epic Battle

over the Debts of the Holocaust

By John Authers and Richard Wolffe

HarperCollins -- 458pp -- $29.95

Fifty years after the end of World War II, a small group of American Jews launched a campaign to resolve one of the most complex issues of the Holocaust: the plundering of the property of European Jewry by the Nazis and their accomplices. In time, the aggrieved would win some monetary redress and a good deal of publicity for their cause. But as John Authers and Richard Wolffe show in The Victim's Fortune, what began as a crusade for justice led quickly, and perhaps inevitably, to an unseemly squabble over money and representation. The authors, both of the Financial Times, have provided a well-written account of a fascinating, convoluted set of events.

In 1952, the fledgling government of Israel signed a reparations agreement that provided for large payments by the West German government over many years. Along with the Jewish state, concentration camp inmates received compensation, as did individuals who had lost assets and their livelihoods in Germany. These payments ran into tens of billions of dollars, but they did not cover property lost outside of Germany or restitution for slave labor.

In the decades that followed, there was little discussion of the Nazis' systematic looting of the Jews. In the thousands of pages written about the Holocaust, the matter was largely ignored. Partly, this was a result of the Cold War, which pushed unresolved issues of earlier decades to the margins. Also, Jewish organizations did not want the world to think they were trying to capitalize on one of the 20th century's greatest human tragedies. Some Jewish victims even refused to take what they saw as blood money and a German attempt to buy forgiveness.

Still, Germany at least had confronted the issue. Eastern European countries such as Poland and Hungary, which had the largest prewar Jewish populations in Europe, are only today getting around to the task of returning Jewish assets, the better part of which were appropriated by communist regimes. Reparations efforts in Western European countries also idled for years. Norway, which had a tiny Jewish population and thus little liability, did not get around to returning all stolen assets until 1997. France and Holland, which had much larger Jewish communities, returned some property immediately after the war but did little to help families of murdered Jews retrieve plundered assets.

The Swiss, with their famously secretive bankers, may have been the least forthcoming. The Victim's Fortune begins with them. Authers and Wolffe excel in describing the effort of the World Jewish Congress, a battalion of class-action lawyers, and numerous politicians, including former U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato and New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, to force Swiss banks to settle the issue of accounts that had lain dormant since the war.

WJC Secretary-General Israel Singer started confronting the Swiss banks in 1995. The contest became a very personal one for Singer, who felt the urgency of resolving matters before all of the Holocaust survivors died. Singer became a master at using the media and politicians to keep the issue before the public. But he could not have mounted much of an assault without the backing of WJC President Edgar Bronfman, the billionaire former Seagram Co. CEO and political donor. Bronfman provided the political entrée to the Clinton White House that led to a deep Administration involvement. Before long, the Clinton Administration had its own point man, Stuart Eizenstat, Under Secretary of State and later Deputy Treasury Secretary. Facing such opponents--and a key threat of sanctions by Hevesi, who oversaw New York City's borrowing and pension funds--the Swiss banks agreed to a $1.25 billion settlement in the accounts matter.

As the struggle shifted to France, Germany, and Austria, even more class- action lawyers jumped on board. Although some had noble reasons for entering the fight, in The Victim's Fortune, even the best-intentioned come across as opportunists. Nor do the Jewish organizations, which demanded control over unclaimed funds, fare much better. But without them--and judges who forced the parties to compromise--it is doubtful that giant European corporations and governments would have acted. In late 1999, fearful of being dragged into unfriendly U.S. courts, such industrial giants as DaimlerChrysler, Volkswagen, Siemens, and Krupp agreed to a payout of $5 billion to compensate slave laborers.

Ironically, the Holocaust survivors felt little of the sense of success experienced by those more directly involved in the negotiations. Some, such as Gizella Weisshaus, the lead plaintiff against the Swiss banks, became critics of the process. By the time of the bank settlement, her scorn for her lawyer and Singer, both of whom she saw as unresponsive, seemed equal to her disgust for the banks. Others, such as Martin Stern, the grandson of a Holocaust victim, focused their ire on Jewish groups, particularly the WJC. Stern carried on a battle against Assicurazioni Generali, the giant Italian insurance company accused of failing to pay Jewish prewar policyholders.

But the reaction of 71-year-old Jaime Rothman, after receiving his $5,000 check for years of slave labor, was likely more typical. "The point is always the same," he said. "Too little, too late. But if it had been earlier or larger, it would have been no more moral."

Jerusalem correspondent Sandler extensively covered the Swiss bank affair.

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