Suing for price of a nightmare Holocaust: Survivors and their heirs are joining a class-action suit to recover Jewish property from secretive Swiss banks.

November 03, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

The name of the attorney handling claims in Maryland brought by Holocaust survivors and their heirs against two Swiss banks was incorrect in an article yesterday. Her name is Diane Leigh Davison.

The Sun regrets the error.

It's not much -- a droplet of bullion amid $20 billion being sought in Switzerland by the heirs of the Holocaust -- but it is the price of a nightmare to Claudine Konkowski Davison.

"After all this time, it's an opportunity to give my father what is due to him," says the 58-year-old Davison, a Belgian native who ** moved to Pikesville in 1963.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"There are so many stories of Jews not taking up arms; well, my father certainly did. He didn't like the limelight and maybe he wouldn't like what we're doing now. But we need to expose the Swiss. They were not so noble."

Davison is part of a class-action suit filed Oct. 3 in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, N.Y., a suit that grows by scores of plaintiffs every day. Aided by recently declassified U.S. documents sealed since the end of World War II, the case may be the payoff for long years of work by people tracking Nazi blood money the way Simon Wiesenthal tracked Nazis.

"I think being neutral was a sham Switzerland tried to play on everybody," says Davison, one of several Marylanders to join the lawsuit so far.

The suit against the Union Bank of Switzerland and the Swiss Bank Corp. is being led by New York attorney Ed Fagan on behalf of Gizella Weisshaus, 66, a concentration camp survivor living in Williamsburg, an Orthodox Jewish enclave of Brooklyn.

The two-pronged lawsuit seeks, with interest, unclaimed money deposited in Swiss banks by Jews trying to protect their assets from a German war machine that eventually caught up with them.

That is the experience of Weisshaus, who says she has been to Switzerland three times to recover money her father put there for safekeeping before he was killed by the Germans. Each time, Weisshaus was turned away because she did not have an account number.

Lawsuit for justice

"After 51 years they think we are fools and maybe my father was also a fool?" asks Weisshaus. "We had to bring our lawsuit to get our justice."

The second aspect of the suit seeks compensation for the value of Jewish property looted, liquidated and deposited in Swiss banks by the Nazis to bankroll their war.

By about 1942, the Nazis are believed to have nearly bankrupted Germany's reserves. With that in mind, the Fagan team is keen on proving an especially grisly theory: that with each Jewish community slaughtered, a direct correlation exists to gold deposited in Swiss banks by the murderers.

Stonewalled by the Swiss

In tearful testimony at hearings called by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato, a New York Republican, Holocaust survivors have told of being stonewalled by Swiss banks demanding documentation that sometimes included requests for death certificates of relatives killed in concentration camps.

Along with material uncovered by the World Jewish Congress, the hearings point to collaboration by the Nazis and the Swiss. Carlo Jagmetti, the Swiss ambassador to the United States, admitted last week that some families got the runaround: "From a human point of view, some real mistakes have been made."

Swiss banking ombudsman Hanspeter Haeni has called a news conference for Nov. 12 on the status of a search on behalf of some 1,000 people seeking assets that their relatives may have put in secretive Swiss banks. In December, the Swiss parliament is expected to approve the temporary lifting of banking secrecy laws in a sweeping review of Switzerland's wartime role as a financial center.

The commission's goal is to produce a historical verdict on whether neutral Switzerland profited from World War II.

A Belgian hero

Although Davison knows of no family accounts in Swiss banks and says that her family survived the war with most of their property intact, she has nonetheless joined the suit on the basis of money her father spent bribing Nazis to save Jewish lives.

"My father was a likable man," she says. "I'm not sure of all the tricks he managed, but he worked some kind of magic during the war."

Belgium capitulated to the Nazis 18 days after it was invaded in May 1940 and was ruled by Germany until its liberation in the autumn of 1944. In that time, a Brussels metal factory owner named Maurice Konkowski became a leading hero in the resistance, with his valor commended in a letter from the Allied commander in Europe, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

According to Davison, her father paid a Catholic family to take in her and her sister, two of their cousins and their grandmother for the duration of the war.

He also bribed the German inspector put in charge of his factory after the Nazis appropriated it for their war effort. The bribes allowed Konkowski to maintain a secret room behind the factory, she said, to print fake work permits and identification cards, and to store arms for the underground.

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