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Survivors Launch Lawsuit Against Swiss Central Bank

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Holocaust victims stepped up legal action against Switzerland this week as efforts to resolve Holocaust-era claims entered a more acerbic phase.

Lawyers for Holocaust victims filed a new class-action lawsuit against Switzerland’s central bank to recover plundered gold acquired by Switzerland during World War II.

The lawsuit, which is separate from a pending multibillion-dollar lawsuit against Swiss commercial banks, asks the U.S. District Court in Washington to award compensatory and punitive damages to five Holocaust victims living in the United States and Canada.

The lawsuit accuses the Swiss National Bank of “unlawful behavior” and asks for the return of “all identifiable property looted from plaintiffs.”

“As a result of their conduct for a period of over 50 years, Swiss National Bank has retained and profited from illegally obtained assets,” the lawsuit said.

The Swiss National Bank has said all claims were settled in a 1946 treaty and has vowed to fight any lawsuit against it.

The move came as settlement talks between three Swiss commercial banks and Jewish negotiators collapsed and as U.S. public finance officers prepared to meet Wednesday in New York to consider slapping sanctions on the banks.

The World Jewish Congress said in advance of the meeting it would not oppose boycott moves against the banks — Credit Suisse Group, Union Bank of Switzerland and Swiss Bank Corp.

Meanwhile, some positive news emerged this week for Holocaust survivors anxiously awaiting compensation.

U.S. and British officials announced that the first payments from an international fund set up by the two countries to benefit Holocaust survivors are expected to go out next month.

Payments from the $57 million fund, which is separate from a fund established by Switzerland last year, are slated to be distributed to Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Sixteen countries have so far made contributions to the fund, including eight European countries that donated part or all of their share of residual Nazi gold held by the Tripartite Gold Commission.

The gold commission was set up by the United States, Britain and France after World War II to return looted Nazi gold to the nations it was plundered from, and it is now making its final distributions.

In a related development, the United States and 38 other nations announced a drive to identify art stolen from Holocaust victims and to compensate their heirs.

Both announcements came as Jewish groups and representatives from more than 30 countries convened at the U.S. State Department for an organizing seminar in advance of a second international conference this fall on Holocaust-era assets.

The Washington conference, a follow-up to a last year’s London conference on Nazi gold, is intended to focus on looted artworks, insurance policies and other assets.

Stuart Eizenstat, the Clinton administration’s point man on Holocaust restitution issues, said he hoped the fall gathering will allow for discussion of remaining Holocaust-era questions in a “positive, non-confrontational way.”

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