A final settlement Holocaust claims: Grass-roots campaign forces Swiss banks to reach settlement with survivors.

August 15, 1998

THE $1.25 billion settlement between Swiss banks and Jewish groups is one of the rare instances when a grass-roots FTC effort forced powerful institutions to deal with an issue they wished would go away.

At the end of World War II, the issue of returning money and assets that were left on deposit by Holocaust victims was swept under the rug. When the World Jewish Congress, headed by Seagram's magnate Edgar Bronfman, put the return of these assets at the top of its agenda in the early 1990s, the issue emerged from the postwar shadows.

Three years ago, Swiss bankers finally acknowledged the assets' existence and offered approximately 18,000 claimants $26 million. The WJC said the amount was inadequate. Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York, facing a tough re-election race, held hearings in the spring of 1996, further publicizing the issue. By the fall, a half-dozen Holocaust survivors had filed class-action lawsuits against Swiss banks.

At this juncture, public officials stepped in. New York, Massachusetts and California stopped investing in Swiss banks and their U.S. subsidiaries and demanded a thorough accounting of dormant accounts.

The Swiss offered a settlement of $600 million. Only when more states and cities threatened to take punitive measures against the Swiss early this summer, did serious discussions begin.

The $1.25 billion settlement could pave the way for other disputed assets. Zurich Insurance Group, owner of Maryland Casualty, has formed a four-person group to review Holocaust-related claims. German banks, on the other hand, believe that they have paid their reparations. Dresdner Bank and Deutsche Bank will continue to fight an $18 billion lawsuit filed against them. So, sadly, there seems little likelihood that other claims over Holocaust victims' property will be settled soon.

! Pub date: 8/15/98

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