In a historic hearing that rekindled memories of concentration camp horrors, Holocaust survivors joined the Clinton administration and major Jewish organizations in urging a federal judge Monday to approve a $1.25-billion claims settlement with Swiss banks.
“Moral restitution is 55 years late,” said Israel Singer, president of the World Jewish Congress, before a packed and hushed Brooklyn courtroom.
Holding up his wrist to show his concentration camp tattoo, Wolf Factor, who lived through three camps, proclaimed: “If this is postponed, all the help will be brought to our graves. Thousands of people in wheelchairs are waiting.”
Without saying what he would do, U.S. District Judge Edward R. Korman, who played a major role in fashioning the agreement in August 1998, listened sympathetically to testimony that the pact contains a major flaw.
Anne Webber, an official of the European Commission on Looted Art, told the court that the agreement bars people from recovering art in Switzerland that was stolen by Nazi looters.
“We ask you to prevent this new injustice,” said Webber, the commission’s co-chair.
“I will give careful thought to your objections,” the judge said. Korman is not expected to make any ruling until early next year, after holding another hearing in Jerusalem on Dec. 14.
It is now anticipated that no money will be given out until the second half of 2000--at the earliest.
Pent-up bitterness and sorrow surfaced at Monday’s hearing after Roger Witten, a lawyer for the banks, announced that the settlement called for “complete closure.”
“You want complete closure? Give me back my father. Give me back my uncle. Give me back my family,” retorted Leo Richter, who lost several relatives during the Holocaust, expressing the emotions of many in the big ceremonial courtroom.
Immediately after Witten concluded his remarks, Melvyn I. Weiss, a principal lawyer for the plaintiffs, quickly rose to speak.
“Let there be no mistake about this. The Swiss government did not assist” in the settlement process, he charged angrily. “The Swiss government fought against it. The banks put up the money against the will of the Swiss government.
“Don’t ever let the Swiss government ever get away with saying they are absolved because of this,” Weiss added.
Witten, who also urged prompt adoption of the agreement, said hard bargaining between the banks and lawyers representing the victims brought about the settlement. The alternative, he warned, would have been protracted litigation. “The outcome of the litigation would have been quite uncertain,” the lawyer added.
Speaking for the Clinton administration, Justice Department lawyer James Gilligan also urged quick approval. He called the settlement “fair, reasonable and in the public interest.”
The hearing was part of a complex process that included unprecedented notification throughout the world of the settlement of several cases reached with the banks, Credit Suisse First Boston and UBS, by tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors and the heirs of individuals who were murdered by the Nazis.
The agreement reached last year after months of frequently bitter negotiations also ended threatened sanctions against the banks by about 20 states and 30 U.S. municipalities.
Letters were mailed after the pact to more than 1.5 million potential beneficiaries in 48 countries. Ads were placed in 500 newspapers. A Web site was set up along with toll-free phone numbers. In all, 3,900 organizations participated.
The suit evolved out of events that occurred many years ago. As the threat from Hitler’s Nazi regime became more ominous in the 1930s, tens of thousands of European Jews deposited their money in Swiss banks for safekeeping. However, after World War II ended, both Holocaust survivors and the relatives of those who perished in the Nazi gas chambers were unable to regain the funds--on some occasions being told that they needed nonexistent death certificates from the concentration camps in order to prove they were entitled to the money.
On Monday, Weiss and his co-counsel, New York University law professor Burt Neuborne, said that even though they favor a swift resolution, they found Webber’s presentation on the art issue persuasive.
Weiss said that, although the judge does not have the power to change the settlement, “he has a bully pulpit” that he can use to push for a modified deal.
Neuborne said he thought that Webber had been so effective that the Swiss would be willing to modify the release provisions in the agreement so that looted art is not shielded. “The Swiss don’t want stolen paintings hanging in their museums,” he said.
In addition to the fairness issue, the judge also has to approve a distribution plan for the funds that is being formulated by Judah Gribetz, a New York lawyer appointed as a special master by Korman.
Among the key decisions that Gribetz must make are how much of the money should go to individuals and how much to Jewish organizations. Some Jewish leaders argue that as much of the funds as possible should be given to survivors or their families.
Others maintain that large amounts should be donated for broader purposes--such as Jewish education or the restoration of Jewish cemeteries that were destroyed in eastern Europe.
Gribetz’s recommendations are scheduled to be issued Dec. 28. However, he may have to push the date back a few weeks to give him more time to factor in the findings of a special commission investigating dormant Swiss accounts from the Holocaust era. The commission, headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker, is scheduled to issue its final report Dec. 6.
Gribetz’s recommendations are to be distributed to 450,000 potential claimants around the world who filled out questionnaires in response to the advertising campaign. A final hearing on the allocation plan has been scheduled for May 30, 2000.
An initial timetable for distributing the settlement funds has not been met. In September 1998, a month after the agreement was reached, lawyers for the plaintiffs said they wanted to distribute the first funds, about $250 million, within a year. That goal has fallen by the wayside.
The ticking clock was very much on the minds of people who testified Monday--as were references to recent attempts to deny the breadth of the Holocaust. Speaker after speaker warned that more and more elderly survivors are dying each year.
“We can’t judge if it is enough,” Singer said, referring to the $1.25-billion settlement. “The people who can judge are dead.”