Estelle Sapir, the first Holocaust survivor to win a wartime claim from a Swiss bank that had secretly hoarded her family's fortune for half a century, died of cardiac arrest Tuesday in New York.
She was 72 and had barely a year to enjoy her victory in a protracted battle to recover money left by her father when he was killed in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.
Her father was one of more than 40,000 Jews believed to have deposited money and other property in Swiss banks for safekeeping during the war. In 1997 she became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed on their behalf, seeking compensation for the wartime assets.
Born in Warsaw, Sapir was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish investment banker who began making deposits at Credit Suisse in 1938 as the Nazis mobilized for war. Josef Sapir's foresight was proved three years later when, after relocating to Paris, he and his family were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.
Sapir was 16 when she last saw her father. Separated by a barbed-wire fence in a Nazi camp in France, she held his finger as he told her about the money he had sent to Swiss banks. If you survive, he told his daughter, don't worry. There is plenty of money for you--$82,000 at Credit Suisse alone.
He made her promise that she would go to Switzerland to retrieve it so that whoever was left in their family could survive.
"Many times he said, 'Repeat this, repeat this,' " Sapir recalled in a newspaper interview last year. "And I remember the names of the banks, I remember."
Her father, who was held in camps in France and Poland, did not survive. He was killed at the Nazi concentration camp in Maidanek, Poland, in 1943.
But Estelle Sapir had managed to escape in 1942 and was taken in by members of the Resistance. They put her to work, teaching her how to blow up trains and bridges used by Nazi troops.
In 1946, after she was reunited with her mother in Paris, she made the first of many attempts to lay claim to her father's money. The 18-year-old Jewish Resistance fighter did not make much of an impression on stern Swiss bankers, however.
Officials at Credit Suisse demanded proof of her father's death as a condition of releasing any funds. The only documents she had were a letter in French that her father wrote on the last day of his life, photographs of him on a train full of Jews bound for the Maidanek death camp, and Nazi records showing that he was transported to Maidanek on March 6, 1943.
"It was like dealing with the Gestapo all over again," Sapir recalled last year. "They insisted I needed a death certificate.
"I pleaded with them. I told them there were no records from the camps. I started to scream at a bank manager, 'What do you want me to do? Find Hitler or Himmler and ask them to sign my father's death certificate?' They just looked at me blankly, every time."
Between 1946 and 1957, while living in Paris, Sapir made 20 trips to Credit Suisse. Each time, she said, the authorities refused to deal with her. Her mother begged her to give up because "every time I returned, my depression was so severe."
After a decade of futile attempts, she finally gave in to her mother and tried to lay the matter to rest.
She emigrated to the United States in 1969. She never married and lived alone in a one-room apartment in Queens. She worked in a drugstore for 27 years before retiring.
A few years ago, she heard a news report that then-Sen. Al D'Amato of New York was opening an investigation into property held in Swiss banks that belonged to Holocaust survivors. Within 24 hours of contacting D'Amato, Sapir was sitting in his office recounting her family's saga. She soon became the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit to recoup Jewish assets.
Last May, 52 years after her first attempt to pry open her father's Swiss bank account, Credit Suisse paid Sapir a sum reported between $300,000 and $500,000. In a statement from Zurich, Credit Suisse said it made the settlement after an extensive review found that Josef Sapir had business ties with the bank before the war.
At a news conference in D'Amato's office, the tiny, fragile-looking Sapir, who once described herself as a "fearless devil," stood on a stack of books so that she could be seen over a podium. In her hands she held up faded black-and-white photographs of her father.
"It's not about money," she told reporters. "It's about justice."
The settlement removed Sapir as the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit but opened the way for other claimants to receive their due. In August, two Swiss banks, Credit Suisse and UBS, agreed to a global $1.25-billion settlement.
Sapir was the only member of her family who lived long enough to see that day come.