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Agreement in Swiss Bank Case Could Mean More for Survivors

June 30, 2004
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Swiss banks and the U.S. judge overseeing a $1.25 billion settlement of Holocaust-era claims have reached an agreement that may yield hundreds of millions of dollars in additional assets for survivors and their heirs. Reached June 10 between Credit Suisse, UBS AG and the U.S. District Court of Eastern New York, the agreement for the first time will publicize information about thousands of accounts and will establish a U.S. database to field claims through the Claims Conference, the principal body dealing with Holocaust restitution.

“This gives us the information to try to give the money to the right people,” Burt Neuborne, a New York University law professor and the court-appointed lead settlement counsel, told JTA.

The agreement comes in the wake of a stormy April hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Edward Korman that saw survivors and dozens of groups from the United States, Israel and Europe vying for the lion’s share of! some $650 million remaining from the historic 1998 class-action settlement with the Swiss banks.

Their pleas came after Korman issued several memorandums earlier this year indicating that after $593 million had been awarded to survivors or their heirs, as well as others impacted by Swiss complicity in Nazi actions — including Swiss refugees and slave laborers for Swiss firms — he likely would award most of the remaining money to the poorest survivors, who are believed to live in the former Soviet Union.

Korman also accused the Swiss banks of trying to “delay justice” and cover up frozen Holocaust-era assets through strict secrecy laws.

If it helps more survivors to recover lost assets, the June 10 agreement could mean that less is available for needy survivors who didn’t have Swiss accounts.

Of the money awarded so far, nearly $155 million has gone directly to some 2,000 survivors who had accounts in Swiss banks, or their heirs. A claims tribunal screened 33,! 000 claims for 20,000 names the Swiss agreed to make public.

Court memos indicate that the average award was $170,000, though assets varied widely in size, officials said.

Under the latest agreement, the banks will publish information about 5,000 more Swiss accounts where the names match lists of Holocaust survivors but lack other corroborating documentation.

That will “give people a chance to step forward” to provide additional evidence linking them to the accounts, Neuborne said.

The banks also finally allowed 13,500 claims that did not match bank lists, but agreed to rank them on the basis of relative documentary strength such as bank books, documents or personal narratives, Neuborne said.

The banks also agreed to try to match those claims not from a 13,600-name database but from a much broader file of 4.1 million names, dubbed the “total account database.” Two thousand of the strongest claims will be reviewed in depth to determine if they match account data.

Jerusalem resident Martin Stern, one of the original plaintiffs! in a separate case that sparked the Holocaust insurance policy settlement that produced the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, or ICHEIC, lauded the latest Swiss pact.

“We have, thank God, broken a barrier,” Stern said of the latest steps.

But Stern, a member of the World Zionist Organization’s audit and treasury committees, also called on the banks and Korman to allow a “cross-check” between the 500,000 names in the ICHEIC database and the Swiss database to see if any account holders surface.

“The one thing we want is the full publication of everything,” he said.

Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, said the organization was “honored” to be handling the Swiss accounts case. Until now, the Claims Conference largely has dealt with German property restitution.

“It’s very significant because a lot of money is at stake and symbolically because everyone feels that the highest priority is to process these ban! k accounts” for survivors and their heirs, he said. “This is about the story being told and the truth coming out.”

Korman handed the final judicial review of the pact to U.S. District Court Judge Frederick Block but will retain oversight over the settlement. Korman could not be reached for comment.

Neuborne, meanwhile, said the pact still must be ratified by the Swiss Federal Banking Commission but that he is hopeful the commission will approve it soon.

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