The Victim's Fortune: Inside the Epic Battle over the Debts of the Holocaust

Overview

Fifty years after World War II, a small group of Americans launched a campaign to confront the world with the fact that many assets looted by the Nazis, including Swiss bank accounts, life insurance policies, and slave labor wages had never been returned to their owners. They wanted to write the final chapter in the story of the Holocaust's survivors and to win recognition for the debt that these victims were owed.

Backed by class action law suits and threats of economic ...

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Overview

Fifty years after World War II, a small group of Americans launched a campaign to confront the world with the fact that many assets looted by the Nazis, including Swiss bank accounts, life insurance policies, and slave labor wages had never been returned to their owners. They wanted to write the final chapter in the story of the Holocaust's survivors and to win recognition for the debt that these victims were owed.

Backed by class action law suits and threats of economic sanctions, a disparate group of lawyers, politicians, and Jewish advocacy groups mounted a vigorous challenge against some of the world's largest corporations and governments to demand billions of dollars. But what began as a moral crusade soon became a bare-knuckled battle that opened up painful debates about whether money can ever compensate for the horrors of the Holocaust. This spellbinding account reveals the struggle as it was really fought and ultimately won—and the damage that was left in its wake.

About the Authors:
John Authers is a correspondent for the Financial Times based in New York City.

Richard Wolffe is a correspondent for the Financial Times based in Washington, D.C.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In 1996, a small but determined band of Americans took on a complex and difficult challenge: to recover the lost fortunes of the Jewish victims of the Nazis in WWII. Would they be able to overcome some of the world's most powerful governments and corporations, and ultimately prevail?
Publishers Weekly
Authers and Wolffe, journalists for the Financial Times, trace the efforts made from 1995 to date to win compensation for those who lost assets and endured forced labor at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators in WWII. They talk to the heads of Jewish organizations and senior American government officials, all of whom were fighting on behalf of the victims, as well as to the victims' lawyers. Using strategies such as threatened boycotts, calculated emotional outbursts, public pressure campaigns and class action suits, this group of Americans targeted European banks that had pocketed balances belonging to Holocaust victims, insurers who never paid out life insurance proceeds, and industrial concerns that benefited from forced (and even slave) labor during the war. Though impressive settlements have been negotiated, the story is a dispiriting one, regardless of how one feels about reparations: each new episode in the battle generated recriminations and bitterness among the plaintiffs, and distribution is the most contentious phase of all. Some of the lawyers are drawing multimillion-dollar fees while their clients receive amounts in the low thousands. Certain Jewish organizations that had led the compensation campaign are now fighting Holocaust survivors for control of the money. Authers and Wolffe's well-researched and nuanced book demonstrates how the struggle for reparations has simultaneously been a fight for justice and a vindictive squabble over money. (June 7) Forecast: Aside from this book's natural audience in the Jewish community, it should also be instructive to anyone interested in the hot question of reparations to African-American descendants of slaves. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A tangled tale of Nazi gold, Swiss banks, and dogged lawyers locked in titanic struggle. Call it a Bleak House for our time: Financial Times reporters Authers and Wolffe track what they rightly call an "epic battle" over monetary compensation for those who suffered imprisonment and slavery under Adolf Hitler's regime. That battle begins at least as early as 1946, when several leading Swiss banks failed to live up to the terms of an agreement with the Allies to deliver half of the wealth the Nazi government socked away in Swiss vaults. Though by some estimates this totaled at least $500 million at the time, the Swiss yielded only a token payment of $28 million in 1952. Pursuing this and other trails in the early 1990s, American attorneys Stuart Eizenstat and Israel Singer, Canadian magnate Edgar Bronfman, and other parties set in motion a chain of hearings and suits that in the end helped force an accounting--and one that would take several years and occupy the attentions of a small army of lawyers. An audit that cost at least a billion Swiss francs revealed, just as they suspected, that the long-dormant accounts of the Holocaust's victims had fed billions of dollars into the Swiss economy, with almost no effort having been given to finding their true owners or heirs. Pressing for that accounting from those banks and for compensation from the German and Austrian governments, as well as private concerns such as Daimler-Chrysler, proved to be a far more difficult matter than anyone might have foreseen, setting off bitter recriminations and intramural struggles among Jewish communities in Europe and America. The authors do a commendable job of charting the political and economic complexitiesof the various cases involved, keeping their narrative readable throughout--no easy task, given the minutia of international law, banking regulations, and other matters that inform this book. Those interested in international justice will find this both fascinating and disturbing; a worthy companion to Jean Ziegler's The Swiss, the Gold, and the Dead (1999).
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641570551
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/28/2002
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.08 (h) x 1.46 (d)

Meet the Author

John Authers has been a Financial Times journalist since 1990, and conducted most of the research for this book in New York where he was the paper's banking correspondent from 1996 to 2001. Shortly after completing the manuscript, he moved to Mexico City where he is now the paper's bureau chief.

A graduate of Oxford University, he more recently took advantage of the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economic and Financial Journalism to study at Columbia University, conducting the early planning for The Victim's Fortune at the journalism school, and earning an MBA from the business school

Before going to New York he worked in London, winning awards for coverage of investment (as the Unit Trust Association's national journalist of the year in 1992) and of education (as the Business and Technical Education Council's national newspaper journalist of the year for 1994). Prior to the FT, he did freelance work for London's Daily Telegraph and Guardian, and also worked for Congressional Quarterly in Washington, DC.

A keen classical singer, he has performed in Carnegie Hall and in concert halls across Europe, in the choirs for soloists including Cecilia Bartoli, Luciano Pavarotti, and Bryn Terfel. He is also an enthusiastic walker, who has climbed Kilimanjaro and reached the base camps of Everest, and of K2's Concordia glacier.

Authers lives in Mexico City with his fiancee Sara Silver, also a Financial Times journalist.

Richard Wolffe is U.S. diplomatic correspondent for the Financial Times and deputy bureau chief in Washington, D.C.

Richard Wolffe is U.S. diplomatic correspondent for the Financial Times and deputy bureau chief in Washington, D.C.

Over the last few years he has reported extensively on the presidential election, concentrating on the Bush campaign. Other stories he has covered in depth include the Microsoft antitrust trial and the campaign for Holocaust compensation.

Richard joined the Financial Times in 1994. Before moving to DC, he worked as a national reporter in the UK covering a wide news beat, including the 1997 general election and IRA terrorist attacks on the mainland.

A graduate from Oxford University, his career prior to the Financial Times included news reporting for London's Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph as well as regional news reporting in Brighton, Sussex.

His freelance work includes CNN, the BBC and The New Republic. He has also appeared on The NewsHour on PBS, MSNBC and Fox News, as well as a series of international media including CBC and Deutsche Welle.

Richard lives in Washington with his wife, Paula Cuello, and their young daughter, Ilana. Born in September 1968, he grew up in Birmingham, England.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



For Want of a Chair



It was a little after one o'clock on Thursday, September 14, 1995, when Israel Singer stepped out of the Swiss presidential palace in Bern. A sprightly figure, with a black yarmulke perched at a rakish angle over his white hair, Singer relished what lay ahead of him. As he bustled along the cobbled streets, the fifty-three-year-old rabbi from Brooklyn was leading a group of six Jewish leaders toward lunch with some of the most powerful men in the financial world.

Singer and his friends hurried as they turned into Theaterplatz, a narrow arcade ending at the Zytglogge, a huge clock tower that has efficiently ticked out perfect Swiss time since 1530. It reminded them how late they were. Ignoring the Alpine peaks of the Eiger and the Jungfrau towering in the distance, their Swiss host guided them to the Théâtre de Musique, an ornate eighteenth century building decorated with carvings of lyres and mandolins, and steered them through an unmarked door to an unremarkable vestibule. The men climbed a broad flight of stairs leading to a pair of heavy wooden doors, which bore a discreet plaque bearing the inscription: Cercle Privée de la Grande Société.

Singer was no stranger to the exclusive circles of power and money. For more than a decade as secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, he had courted some of the wealthiest businesspeople in America and cultivated the country's most influential politicians. Always immaculately presented in tailored suits and monogrammed shirts and sporting afresh splash of cologne, Singer was no ordinary rabbi.

Beside him was Edgar Bronfman Sr., an urbane Canadian who strode into La Grande Société with the confidence of the fabulously rich. Bronfman was ready to hand over to his son the reins of Seagram, the family's huge distillery and entertainment conglomerate, and was throwing his estimated $3.3 billion personal fortune behind Singer. As president of the World Jewish Congress, Bronfman had even used his private jet to fly the delegation from Brussels to Switzerland that morning.

Together Singer and Bronfman were proud of the international battles they had already fought and won for Jewish causes. They had helped to free Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union and successfully exposed the hidden war record of the Austrian president, Kurt Waldheim. Now they were ready for the biggest battle of their lives -- confronting Switzerland's secretive banks about something buried in their vaults for fifty years. The Swiss banks, for centuries a refuge for the wealth of Europe, were clinging to money deposited by desperate Jews on the eve of the Holocaust. Rather than return the cash to bereaved families at the end of the war, Singer and Bronfman believed, the banks had brushed the victims aside with decades of pettifogging excuses.

Inside La Grande Société, the Swiss Bankers Association waited to meet their accusers. Singer's allegations were not new. Indeed, suggestions that the banks had profited from "dormant assets" had rumbled through the Swiss body politic for decades. In the first seven years after the war, the banks had conducted surveys three times to try to identify accounts that might be dormant. Since then, Switzerland had carefully cultivated a wholesome image based on its finest institutions: the International Committee of the Red Cross, the nation's highly democratic local government, and its neutrality in times of hot and cold war. Now the banks found themselves in the firing line as Switzerland began to admit that its record during the Nazi years was less than snow-white.

Only a few months earlier, on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war, Kaspar Villiger, the Swiss president, apologized to the many Jewish refugees refused entry to Switzerland during the war. But his noble act provoked a new wave of international scrutiny into the banks' conduct, both during and after the Nazi years. Globes, Tel Aviv's biggest business newspaper, claimed that as much as $7 billion in Holocaust survivors' money lay dormant in Swiss banks, while the Wall Street Journal printed a front-page article on the struggles of Holocaust survivors to retrieve their accounts. Even some of Switzerland's bank regulators were agitating to clear the record. Feeling stung, the Swiss banks launched an internal audit, and they had just released preliminary results. They found 893 dormant accounts worth only 40.9 million Swiss francs, or about $24 million.

Singer and Bronfman entered the red-carpeted, chandeliered splendor of La Grande Société, convinced that there was more money waiting to be found. As they headed straight for the feast waiting for them in a far room, Georg Krayer, president of the Swiss Bankers Association, gestured for them to stop. First, he said, they should go to the anteroom for aperitifs and his welcoming speech. A charming if somewhat professorial man, Krayer headed Bank Sarasin, the largest private bank in Basel, where he was familiar with extremely wealthy clients like Bronfman. He had labored over his brief speech of welcome, aiming to seem open to discussion while firmly denying the Israeli media's wilder estimates of the missing money. As the association had no offices in Bern, Krayer had chosen La Grande Société, an elite private club often used by Bern's diplomatic community. He reasoned that meeting in the club's ornate corridors would be almost like inviting the Jewish dignitaries into his private circle, and made sure to order a kosher meal.

It perturbed Krayer that his guests were late -- a cardinal sin in Switzerland. Moreover, despite an agreement to keep the meeting private, a group of journalists accompanied the Jewish delegation and were gathered in the cobbled street outside. The supposedly private meeting felt like an ambush in the making.

The two groups clutched their cocktails and lined up uncomfortably in the small anteroom, which Bronfman angrily noted had no chairs. Next to Krayer stood Hans Baer, the chairman of Bank Julius Baer and a rare...

The Victim's Fortune. Copyright © by John Authers. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Cast of Characters
Prologue 1
1 For Want of a Chair 5
2 The Final Accounting 21
3 A Pride of Lawyers 37
4 Rewriting History 51
5 Shot across the Bow 62
6 Take It or Leave It 74
7 The Price of Peace 94
8 Gateway to Zion 107
9 Falling like Dominoes 119
10 The Last Prisoners of War 134
11 Americans at the Gate 150
12 Rough Justice 164
13 To Start a War 183
14 Doomed to Succeed 200
15 The Magic Number 215
16 A Piece of Raw Meat 230
17 The Spiderweb 241
18 Claims by Committee 253
19 In the Crossfire 266
20 Freedom Fighting 280
21 First Victims First 293
22 The Last Waltz 308
23 Assigning Guilt 322
24 Legal Peace? 336
25 The Judgment of Judah 350
26 Jew versus Jew 365
Epilogue 378
Notes on Chapters 389
Note on Sources 431
Acknowledgments 435
Index 443
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First Chapter

Chapter One

For Want of a Chair

It was a little after one o'clock on Thursday, September 14, 1995, when Israel Singer stepped out of the Swiss presidential palace in Bern. A sprightly figure, with a black yarmulke perched at a rakish angle over his white hair, Singer relished what lay ahead of him. As he bustled along the cobbled streets, the fifty-three-year-old rabbi from Brooklyn was leading a group of six Jewish leaders toward lunch with some of the most powerful men in the financial world.

Singer and his friends hurried as they turned into Theaterplatz, a narrow arcade ending at the Zytglogge, a huge clock tower that has efficiently ticked out perfect Swiss time since 1530. It reminded them how late they were. Ignoring the Alpine peaks of the Eiger and the Jungfrau towering in the distance, their Swiss host guided them to the Théâtre de Musique, an ornate eighteenth century building decorated with carvings of lyres and mandolins, and steered them through an unmarked door to an unremarkable vestibule. The men climbed a broad flight of stairs leading to a pair of heavy wooden doors, which bore a discreet plaque bearing the inscription: Cercle Privée de la Grande Société.

Singer was no stranger to the exclusive circles of power and money. For more than a decade as secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, he had courted some of the wealthiest businesspeople in America and cultivated the country's most influential politicians. Always immaculately presented in tailored suits and monogrammed shirts and sporting a fresh splash of cologne, Singer was no ordinary rabbi.

Beside him was Edgar Bronfman Sr., an urbane Canadian who strode into La Grande Société with the confidence of the fabulously rich. Bronfman was ready to hand over to his son the reins of Seagram, the family's huge distillery and entertainment conglomerate, and was throwing his estimated $3.3 billion personal fortune behind Singer. As president of the World Jewish Congress, Bronfman had even used his private jet to fly the delegation from Brussels to Switzerland that morning.

Together Singer and Bronfman were proud of the international battles they had already fought and won for Jewish causes. They had helped to free Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union and successfully exposed the hidden war record of the Austrian president, Kurt Waldheim. Now they were ready for the biggest battle of their lives -- confronting Switzerland's secretive banks about something buried in their vaults for fifty years. The Swiss banks, for centuries a refuge for the wealth of Europe, were clinging to money deposited by desperate Jews on the eve of the Holocaust. Rather than return the cash to bereaved families at the end of the war, Singer and Bronfman believed, the banks had brushed the victims aside with decades of pettifogging excuses.

Inside La Grande Société, the Swiss Bankers Association waited to meet their accusers. Singer's allegations were not new. Indeed, suggestions that the banks had profited from "dormant assets" had rumbled through the Swiss body politic for decades. In the first seven years after the war, the banks had conducted surveys three times to try to identify accounts that might be dormant. Since then, Switzerland had carefully cultivated a wholesome image based on its finest institutions: the International Committee of the Red Cross, the nation's highly democratic local government, and its neutrality in times of hot and cold war. Now the banks found themselves in the firing line as Switzerland began to admit that its record during the Nazi years was less than snow-white.

Only a few months earlier, on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war, Kaspar Villiger, the Swiss president, apologized to the many Jewish refugees refused entry to Switzerland during the war. But his noble act provoked a new wave of international scrutiny into the banks' conduct, both during and after the Nazi years. Globes, Tel Aviv's biggest business newspaper, claimed that as much as $7 billion in Holocaust survivors' money lay dormant in Swiss banks, while the Wall Street Journal printed a front-page article on the struggles of Holocaust survivors to retrieve their accounts. Even some of Switzerland's bank regulators were agitating to clear the record. Feeling stung, the Swiss banks launched an internal audit, and they had just released preliminary results. They found 893 dormant accounts worth only 40.9 million Swiss francs, or about $24 million.

Singer and Bronfman entered the red-carpeted, chandeliered splendor of La Grande Société, convinced that there was more money waiting to be found. As they headed straight for the feast waiting for them in a far room, Georg Krayer, president of the Swiss Bankers Association, gestured for them to stop. First, he said, they should go to the anteroom for aperitifs and his welcoming speech. A charming if somewhat professorial man, Krayer headed Bank Sarasin, the largest private bank in Basel, where he was familiar with extremely wealthy clients like Bronfman. He had labored over his brief speech of welcome, aiming to seem open to discussion while firmly denying the Israeli media's wilder estimates of the missing money. As the association had no offices in Bern, Krayer had chosen La Grande Société, an elite private club often used by Bern's diplomatic community. He reasoned that meeting in the club's ornate corridors would be almost like inviting the Jewish dignitaries into his private circle, and made sure to order a kosher meal.

It perturbed Krayer that his guests were late -- a cardinal sin in Switzerland. Moreover, despite an agreement to keep the meeting private, a group of journalists accompanied the Jewish delegation and were gathered in the cobbled street outside. The supposedly private meeting felt like an ambush in the making.

The two groups clutched their cocktails and lined up uncomfortably in the small anteroom, which Bronfman angrily noted had no chairs. Next to Krayer stood Hans Baer, the chairman of Bank Julius Baer and a rare...

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