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He Survived to Fight a Whole New War

Bert Linder, Who Lived Through the Nazi Death Camps, Won't Rest Until Ill-Gained Funds Discovered in Swiss Banks Go Back to the Jews

March 02, 1997|DEXTER FILKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RANCHO MIRAGE — Bert Linder is an old man, his eyes are going and his right knee is already gone, but news of Nazi gold and Swiss banks makes him recall, with a clarity that only pain allows, a scene from his younger days.

In 1943, Linder stepped off a cattle car, descended into Auschwitz, stripped off his clothes and tossed his gold wedding band to the ground .

Later, two dentists walked through the barracks, pushing pliers into open mouths and wrenching free teeth with fillings of gold. The dentists dropped them into little sacks that two SS men held agape.

These were the lesser horrors of Linder's captivity. The worst ones--the beatings, the gassing of his wife, son and sister--survive only as nightmares, savaging him while he sleeps.

The gold, though, lives.

"The Nazis took those things from us, and the Swiss have no right to them," said Linder, an 85-year-old death camp survivor and retired real estate agent. "We, the survivors, only want back what is rightfully ours."

Linder says he doesn't need the money or even much want it--just justice.

From his home in a desert subdivision, Linder is waging a campaign to force the storied banks of Switzerland to give up the riches they secured from victims of the Holocaust, wealth acquired through connivings with the Nazis and held secretly all these years.

In so doing, Linder, who has lectured and written about his experience in the camps, wants to make the Swiss confront the truth about their wartime association with the Nazis, a truth cloaked for 50 years behind myths of neutrality and heroism.

"The Nazis could never have functioned without the Swiss banks," Linder said, "and the banks have kept silent about it all these years."

When news broke last year that the Swiss had discovered in their vaults what may be long dormant accounts of Jews held in the Holocaust, Linder, who was traveling in his native Austria, became one of the first survivors to step forward. In September, he filed claims against eight Swiss banks believed to hold such accounts and demanded that any money discovered be distributed among the survivors.

Like many of the Holocaust survivors now besieging the banks, Linder does not claim that he or his deceased parents held an account in a Swiss bank when the Nazis marched into Austria in 1938--though, he says, that was certainly possible. His father, a Vienna brush factory owner, tried to spirit sizable amounts of money out of the country as the situation for Jews worsened in the late 1930s.

The claim Linder has put to the Swiss banks is more compelling, if less quantifiable: the teeth. The rings. All the millions--the factories, the cash, the cars and the homes plundered by the Nazis--socked away in the safe havens of the Swiss banks.

"It is a moral claim," said Josef Wegrostek, Linder's lawyer and longtime friend in Vienna.

The initial responses from the banks ranged from tepid to icily bureaucratic. Three didn't answer at all.

"You will surely understand," wrote the directors of Credit Suisse in Zurich in September, "that there is nothing there to be distributed; therefore, we cannot comply with your request."

But the battle, far from over, had barely begun. Almost overnight, Linder became a darling of the European news media. His face, adorned by large owlish glasses, appeared in newspapers, magazines and on TV shows across the continent.

Family Affairs, a popular Swiss newsweekly, carried a splashy color photo and the headline: "David Gegen Goliath."

David versus Goliath.

"I've known Bert for 30 years, and he is a very persistent man," Wegrostek said.

Before long, the revelations began to pour forth from the recesses of the Swiss vaults, suggesting a larger wartime role for the banks--and, potentially, billions more in Jewish assets. Hundreds--then thousands--of Holocaust victims and their descendants joined Linder to demand that the banks drop their vaunted veils of secrecy and come clean. Lawsuits were filed, blue-ribbon panels convened, investigations launched.

One such lawsuit, brought against three Swiss banks in the U.S., now includes some 12,000 survivors and their families, including nearly 1,000 from California.

"We get 300 to 400 phone calls every day," said Edward R. Fagan, the lawyer handling the case.

Linder is pleased with what he helped start, and he is enjoying the revelations that daily seem to push the Swiss bankers further and further out on a limb. He hopes that those who emerged alive from Dachau and Buchenwald and Treblinka and Sobibor will finally get what is rightfully theirs.

And with each day, fewer survivors remain; more memories die away. Linder said he won't rest until the survivors get their due.

"I still cannot believe the things human beings did to each other in the concentration camps," Linder said. "If anyone had walked up to me on the street and told me what happened, I would have told them they were lying."

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