Tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors and their heirs who have unpaid Swiss bank accounts stand to get the bulk of the $1.25 billion settlement ($800 million) under a plan revealed this week.
The balance of the funds would be given to those who served as slave laborers, refugees refused entry in Switzerland, and those whose assets were looted by the Nazis: but not their heirs.
A summary of the 900-page plan, developed over two years by Manhattan lawyer Judah Gribetz in his capacity as a court-appointed special master, charged with designing an equitable distribution plan, is being mailed to 560,000 survivors and heirs (93 percent of them Jewish) who previously filled out questionnaires. Those wishing to comment on the plan must do so by Nov. 6, and Brooklyn Federal Judge Edward Korman has scheduled a Nov. 20 hearing on the proposal. Sometime thereafter, the judge is to announce the final plan and how people may apply for the money.
In a letter to Judge Korman, Gribetz wrote that his plan not only meets the legal requirements of the settlement, which dates back to August 1998, but seeks to be fair to Nazi victims "wherever they live and whatever their circumstances."
It is estimated that there are between 830,000 and 960,000 Jewish survivors worldwide. Claims for looted art are not included in the settlement, but insurance companies have added another $50 million to the settlement to make them part of it and therefore free them of further Holocaust-era claims.
"We welcome the proposal," said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. "It is a document of extraordinary intelligence and compassion. In establishing a cap of $800 million for deposited assets, it frees up $500 million for the other allocations."
Burt Neuborne, the lead settlement counsel, said that more than half of the lawyers who filed the class-action suit that led to the settlement have waived fees. He said he "anticipated" that total fees paid to the others (including those who asked that their fees go to charity) would be less than 1 percent, or $12.5 million of the settlement.
Edward Fagan, the lawyer who filed the first class action suit against Swiss banks in 1996, said Neuborne was just making a recommendation to the judge and that the lawyers agreed among themselves to cap their fees at 1.8 percent or $22.5 million.
"The legal fees here are probably the lowest in a case of this nature in history," he said. He added that lawyers in another class-action case on behalf of Holocaust survivors (the $5 billion German settlement) agreed to cap their fees at no more than $62.5 million or 1.3 percent.
Fagan said Gribetz's proposed distribution is a "huge victory for individual survivors." He said there had been talk that organizations might try to benefit from the money, turning this "into the equivalent of the great Holocaust giveaway," but that Gribetz had sided with the survivors.
Based on projections from claims filed to date, the WJC's Steinberg said he believed that although the amount of dormant deposits in Swiss banks may exceed $1.25 billion, the amount yet to be claimed is expected to be "only a fraction of that."
He said 6,700 claims have so far been filed and that the 3,500 honored were worth about $25 million (not counting an upward adjustment by as much as 10 times) once the distribution plan is finalized. Steinberg said another 3,200 claims were rejected and that the remaining 600 are pending review by the Claims Resolution Tribunal.
Steinberg said he was pleased that Gribetz recommended that any money not claimed from the $800 million be used for the needy, particularly those who lived under Communist rule after the war and never received any German reparations.
One of those with a claim against the Swiss banks is Sylvia Mandelbaum of Manhattan, who said her grandfather, father and husband all had money in the banks, but that she has received none of it.
"My husband had $5 million on deposit in 1985 that he received from the sale of his factory three years earlier," she said. "I won't be happy until I see my money."
In his report, Gribetz, a former chairman of the local Jewish Community Relations Council, recommended the following:
# That $800 million of the settlement be set aside to pay those who can prove they or their heirs have unpaid Swiss bank accounts. As soon as Korman approves the distribution plan, the Swiss banks will publish the names of 26,000 accounts identified by independent auditors as "probably" belonging to victims of the Holocaust.
# Another $100 million will be set aside for all needy survivors whose property the court will presume to have been looted by the Nazis. Ten percent of that is to go to non-Jewish victims and 75 percent of the rest to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for use in providing food, medicine and emergency cash grants to survivors in the former Soviet Union.Steven Schwager, chief operating officer of the group, said it is now serving 120,000 survivors who would be eligible for the assistance. The rest of the money is to be distributed to qualifying social service agencies in the rest of the world, including New York.
# Another $200 million is to be set aside for slave labor claims filed by individuals who performed slave labor for German and Swiss owned or controlled companies. Each is to receive up to $1,000. Those who worked for German companies are also to receive money from the German fund.
# About $10 million is to go to a research program to develop a definitive list of Holocaust victims: living and dead.
# Jews who can demonstrate that they were admitted into Switzerland as a refugee and then detained or mistreated (and whose name is on an official Swiss list of Jewish refugees) will receive up to $500 in compensation. Based on the questionnaires, 3,000 people are expected to file such claims.
# Those who can demonstrate that they were denied entry or expelled from Switzerland are to receive up to $2,500 in compensation. It is expected that 17,000 people will file such claims. The names of about 4,000 people in this category are to be published. It is not necessary to be on the list to file a claim. Those who believe they are on the list but do not want their names published must notify the special master in writing by Nov. 20. Letters should be sent in care of the Holocaust Victim Assets Litigation, Notice Administrator, PO Box 8039, San Francisco, CA. 94128-8039. This is also the address to send comments about the distribution proposal.
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