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California and the West

'This Is a Campaign for Truth . . . for Justice'

Conference: Efforts to compensate Holocaust survivors for financial losses are discussed. Tales of greed and heroism abound.

March 02, 1998|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

COSTA MESA — Though thousands of people may win compensation for financial losses that they or their family members suffered due to the Holocaust, the potential claims will never be resolved fully, the vice president of the World Jewish Congress said Sunday at a conference at Whittier Law School.

Nonetheless, Lord Greville Janner, a member of the British House of Lords, said he "never would have dreamed" that the "very great cause" of compensating Holocaust survivors for bank deposits, insurance claims and allegedly stolen art would burgeon as it has the past two years.

"This is a campaign for truth, for restitution for survivors and their families, and a campaign for justice," said Janner, the keynote speaker at a conference titled "Nazi Gold and Other Assets of the Holocaust."

Lawsuits are pending in the U.S. courts on bank deposits and insurance policies. Allegedly plundered paintings have been identified by museum curators and by prosecutors. Seven congressional hearings have been convened on the issues with more to come, as well as an international conference scheduled for Washington in June.

Last year in London, Janner organized a 43-nation conference on gold plundered by the Nazis.

A dozen nations from Sweden to Argentina are reviewing their relationships with the Nazi regime with an eye toward possible redress.

Scores of researchers are regularly making new discoveries while combing through files at archives in the United States and abroad, some of which were described Sunday at the conference--organized by Whittier Law School professor Michael Bazyler, whose paternal grandparents perished in the Holocaust, and by Santa Monica attorney Paul Hoffman, chairman of the U.S. branch of Amnesty International.

The all-day gathering was laden with tales of greed and of efforts to rectify it through litigation, political pressure, even acts of heroism.

Loud applause greeted Christoph Meili, who modestly described how he was fired from his job as a security guard at the Union Bank of Switzerland last year after he prevented the bank from shredding records that could play a key role in ongoing litigation. He said his action had been inspired by the movie "Schindler's List."

New York University law professor Burt Neuborne, an expert on human rights issues, expressed the hope that legal principles well-enshrined in U.S. business litigation will apply in the ongoing round of suits--litigation that he characterized as involving the basic issue of honoring a contract, be it a bank deposit or an insurance policy.

"There's never been a full effort to give the victims justice," said Neuborne, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in a Brooklyn, N.Y., federal class-action suit seeking to recover money that Jews placed in Swiss bank accounts in hopes of keeping it safe.

Neuborne and other attorneys are awaiting a decision from a judge who is wrestling with the issue of whether a U.S. court has jurisdiction to hear the case.

There appeared Sunday to be virtual unanimity that further action must be taken to redress what Victor D. Comras, the State Department's coordinator for Nazi restitution issues, called an "unprecedented theft of assets from Holocaust victims."

It's widely agreed that the losses run into the billions of dollars. But, said Neil Sher, former director of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, which investigates Nazi war crimes, "it's impossible to know how much was plundered. We can only make rough estimates."

Sharp differences emerged Sunday on how to deal with the Swiss government, a World War II neutral, and with Swiss banks, which received 85% of the gold Nazis looted from other countries and individuals. Speaking for the State Department, Comras urged restraint.

The banks are accused both of illegally holding on to the deposits of Holocaust victims or their heirs and of laundering gold seized by the Nazis--including dental fillings from Jews killed in the death camps.

"I empathize with the frustration and bitterness of victims," whose attempts to collect on bank deposits or insurance policies have been denied for years, "but we must concentrate on positive steps," Comras said.

"Switzerland has been moving in the right direction," he said, citing the creation of a $200-million restitution fund and the creation of a commission to study the history of Switzerland's relationship to Hitler's regime.

He continued: "We believe that state and local actions against Switzerland would be unwarranted and counterproductive. We see little wisdom in increasing pressure just when progress is being made."

But Eric Wollman, associate general counsel of the New York City comptroller's office, said localities, particularly New York, had strong reasons for taking their own actions. Citing anti-apartheid divestment campaigns, he said city officials have found that "grass-roots activism can be quite effective in dealing with things normally considered foreign policy."

Wollman said New York City's municipal pension funds hold 323,000 shares--with a market value of $69.5 million--in the three largest Swiss banks. "We have an interest in assuring ourselves . . . that the Swiss banks we invest our money in are conducting themselves in a responsible manner," he said.

Concern also was expressed at the conference about a possible backlash.

"There is an undercurrent that the Jews are going after this money," Sher said. He decried the notion that "there is something wrong, something dirty about trying to redress these wrongs. There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of."

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