- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Political Books

THE VICTIM'S FORTUNE: INSIDE THE EPIC BATTLE OVER THE DEBTS OF THE HOLOCAUST

John Authers and Richard Wolffe

HarperCollins $29.95, 458 pages

It is told in the first book of Kings, that when Naboth refused to give up his vineyard to King Ahab, the termagant Jezebel in revenge ordered Naboth stoned to death. As Ahab marches off to take possession of the vineyard, the prophet Elijah appears before Ahab and asks: "Hast thou killed and also taken possession?"
That was Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's answer on Jan. 7, 1952, to Menachem Begin, a future prime minister, to an unanswerable question: How could reparations and restitution provide even a small measure of justice for the Holocaust? Wasn't it, Begin asked, blood money that was being returned, a mercenary transaction?
But there was another question: Would justice be served if the secretive Swiss banks kept the money for themselves in what they called "dormant accounts," money that had been deposited for safety's sake by German and East European Jews before and after 1933, the year of the Nazis' taking power? There were at least 6,000 such accounts. Would justice be served if the Assicurazioni Generali failed to pay the victim's surviving family because its members couldn't provide the Italian insurance company with a death certificate?
"The Victim's Fortune," a weighty piece of research and reporting, is not just a story about the Holocaust. It is the spellbinding account a half-century later of Jewish leaders, lawyers, judges, businessmen, government officials, and, above all, the victim-survivors who were searching for justice in the form of some kind of payback from those banking and financial institutions that had profited from the Holocaust. It is the story of the German corporations that had benefited from the forced labor of Russian, Polish, Baltic and other peoples swept up by the German armies as they advanced across the continent.
John Authers and Richard Wolffe, journalists at the Financial Times, examined not only thousands of documents but also interviewed some 160 individuals. The results extensively footnoted, including web sites make the kind of history in which fact is carefully separated from opinion and opinion documented by the authors.
The man the authors call the mastermind behind the compensation campaign is Israel Singer, 53, an orthodox Brooklyn rabbi in 1995 when the campaign started. He worked with Edgar Bronfman Sr., the billionaire president of the World Jewish Congress; Stuart Eizenstat, Undersecretary of State; Hillary Clinton, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, Abraham Foxman, Anti-Defamation League director, a critic of Mr. Singer's campaign and Lawrence Eagleburger, former Secretary of State.
Included also is the now-forgotten Christoph Meili, the night watchman at Union Bank of Switzerland, who found ledgers of bank deposits entered before and during the crucial war years in the bank's shredding room waiting to be destroyed.
The book's starting point is 1995, when Mr. Singer and Mr. Bronfman met with the Swiss Bankers Association and demanded an audit of dormant accounts and rightful payment to the survivors. A year later, highly successful class action lawyers and personal injury attorneys initiated court proceedings against banks and insurance companies located in Switzerland, Austria, Italy, France and the United States.
In 1997, Mr. Eizenstat, no doubt with then-President Clinton's support, issued a report that accuses the Swiss National Bank of knowingly receiving gold looted from Holocaust victims and laundering money for the Nazis. In October 1997, the then-New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who lost many of his ancestors in Hungary, threatened economic sanctions against the Swiss banks. The chronology goes on and on.
The Swiss announced a final "offer" of $600 million, which under Mr. Hevesi's threat of sanctions was doubled to $1.25 billion. Austria, France and Germany settled. Finally, on June 19, 2001, a handful of elderly victims received payment of $5,000 for their time in the Nazi labor camps.
But the story does not end there. The successful campaign for the victimized European Jews, say the authors, has cleared the way for other campaigns for historical justice. The California law, allowing slave laborers to sue Germany, gave rise to lawsuits from people forced to work for the Japanese in World War II. Victims of the Armenian genocide in 1915 have won a settlement from the New York Life Insurance Co. And in the wings is the emerging battle over compensation for black Americans for slavery and segregation. Wait and see.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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