WJC 85th Anniversary - World Jewish Congress
A Message from WJC President Ronald S. Lauder

Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder


Menachem Z. Rosensaft

The Jewish Right to Equality

Judge Julian W. Mack

The World Jewish Congress during World War II

Gregory J. Wallance

The Re-enfranchisement of the Jew

Rabbi Stephen S.Wise

Nuremberg and Beyond: Jacob Robinson, a Champion for Justice

Jonathan A. Bush

The State of World Jewry, 1948

Nahum Goldmann

Gerhart M. Riegner: Pioneer for Jewish–Catholic Relations in the Contemporary World

Monsignor Pier Francesco Fumagalli

The World Jewish Congress and the State of Israel: A Personal Reminiscence

Natan Lerner

The World Jewish Congress, the League of Nations, and the United Nations

Zohar Segev

From Pariah to Partner: The Jews of Postwar Germany and the World Jewish Congress

Michael Brenner

Diplomatic Interventions: The World Jewish Congress and North African Jewry

Isabella Nespoli, Menachem Z. Rosensaft

Bourguiba’s Jewish Friend

S. J. Goldsmith

Soviet Jewry: Debates and Controversies

Suzanne D. Rutland

Advancing the Best in Jewish Culture

Philip M. Klutznick

The Struggle for Historical Integrity at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Laurence Weinbaum

New Directions and Priorities, 1985

Edgar M. Bronfman

Fighting Delegitimization: The United Nation’s “Zionism Is Racism” Resolution, a Case Study

Evelyn Sommer

Navigating the Communist Years: A Jewish Perspective

Maram Stern

The Kurt Waldheim Affair

Eli M. Rosenbaum

In Search of Justice: The World Jewish Congress and the Swiss Banks

Gregg J. Rickman

Confronting Terror: The Buenos Aires Bombings

Adela Cojab-Moadeb

The World Jewish Congress Today

Robert R. Singer

My Vision of the Jewish Future

Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder


Robert R. Singer

WJC 1936 - 2021

In Search of Justice: The World Jewish Congress and the Swiss Banks

August 13, 1998

On August 13, 1998, the Swiss people awoke to find that a three-year “war” over Holocaust assets had ended. The day before, a group of Swiss banks had agreed to pay $1.25 billion to thousands of Holocaust survivors and their heirs, after more than fifty years of stonewalling over the fate of their assets.

Among those who had worked hard to achieve this settlement were US Senator Alfonse D’Amato from New York, the chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, who held multiple hearings on Swiss banks and the status of Holocaust survivors or heirs; US District Judge Edward R. Korman of the Eastern District of New York, who had presided and would continue presiding over a series of class actions brought against the Swiss banks by survivors; and Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, who, first as US Undersecretary of Commerce and then as US Undersecretary of State, had led negotiations between the various parties to the controversy. But no one deserved the credit for this enormous victory as much as the World Jewish Congress and its president, Edgar M. Bronfman, Sr.

December 7, 1995

At 12:20 p.m. on December 7, 1995, Bronfman arrived at the US Capitol building to meet with D’Amato, accompanied by WJC Secretary-General Israel Singer and Stephen Herbits, Executive Vice President of Corporate Policy and External Affairs at Seagrams Co. Ltd., and one of Bronfman’s senior aides. Bronfman had come to Washington because he wanted to recruit D’Amato to join the WJC in pressuring Swiss banks into providing an accounting of the assets belonging to the Jewish people—assets dating back to the end of World War II. Once into the conversation, Bronfman and Singer began to detail for D’Amato the events of that year, and what the WJC had done to bring the banks to the table.

Over a bowl of soup, Singer told D’Amato how the Swiss bankers claimed to only have found 774 dormant accounts, opened between 1933 and 1945, and left unclaimed since that time. He said that the Swiss banks had agreed to provide information to the WJC but were not doing so. Singer meticulously detailed the steps of the negotiations and the preliminary findings the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA) had made to date. Yet, he said, the SBA was stalling, and the WJC leadership was getting nervous. “They’re taking advantage of you,” said D’Amato. “They think that they can wait you out. I wouldn’t trust them.” “That’s why we’re here,” said Singer. “We want to ask you,” Bronfman interrupted, “to help us. What can you do?” Without as much as a thought about its implications, D’Amato said quite simply, “We’ll hold hearings. We’ll research it, and we’ll look into the problem.” Simple as it might seem, with this Bronfman had found his man, but neither he nor D’Amato really grasped the significance of D’Amato’s decision. Soon the Swiss bankers and the Swiss people would find out.

Bronfman and the senior professionals at the WJC, primarily Singer and WJC Executive Director Elan Steinberg, had been sharpening their knives for the Swiss bankers for some time. The three made a formidable team. In large part through his jet-setting trips to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Bronfman had raised the public profile of the WJC considerably since becoming president in 1981. Singer, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, had tremendous energy, commitment, and charm; was outspoken and often provocative; and liked the idea of access to royalty and presidents. While Bronfman and Singer were the WJC’s public face, Steinberg was the planning and strategic force in the organization’s hierarchy and thrilled in the daily conduct of relations with the press. With the irrepressible D’Amato, who took pride in his reputation as a pit bull, on board, the fight was on.

It is rare in life that one is fortunate enough to be a participant in a great enterprise. Moreover, it is rarer still to see such an enterprise through to its conclusion. I feel honored to have been a part of just such an effort. From 1995 to 1998, I was a senior aide to Senator D’Amato, and Project Director for the US Senate Banking Committee’s Swiss banks investigation. The campaign to squeeze out a measure of justice was long and tortured by our standards. Still, while money cannot solve all the ills of the world, we could only hope that by bringing the Swiss banks to justice, those victimized first by the Nazis and then by the Swiss could rest a bit easier.

Prologue: Setting the Stage

In the years after World War II, a number of Jewish organizations, including the WJC, tried unsuccessfully to establish that Swiss banks held money and other property of Jews who had perished in the Holocaust. At that time, however, the Jewish groups’ position was weak, and the Allied governments had other things on their minds, such as rebuilding Europe and fighting the Cold War. Four and a half decades later, however, conditions had changed. By the mid-1990s, it was time for Swiss bankers to face up to the sordid truth that they were wrongfully in possession of hundreds of millions—if not billions—of dollars that belonged to Holocaust victims or their heirs. In 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Eastern and Central European Communist regimes, the WJC, together with other major international Jewish organizations, established the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), with Bronfman as president and Singer as one of two co-chairs of the Executive Committee. The WJRO’s mission, in Bronfman’s words, was “to coordinate claims for the return of Jewish community property and the transfer to the Jewish people of heirless holdings. We also worked to secure for individual Jews no longer resident in the countries in question the same rights that would obtain for local Jews who remain.”1 In October of that year, Jacques Picard, a historian with the Institute for Social Research in Bern, received a request from Lawrence Lever, the financial editor of the Mail on Sunday and a BBC film producer to write a report “to examine from a professional standpoint . . . a preliminary study on the subject of the administration of assets in Switzerland of Jewish Holocaust victims, and the use to which they had been put.” The result was a thirty-page paper entitled “Switzerland and the Assets of the Missing Victims of the Nazis,” which Picard subsequently expanded into a full-length book entitled Switzerland and the Jews, 1933–1945.

In July 1994, Itamar Levin, a journalist with Globes, an Israeli business newspaper, was sent to Davos, Switzerland to write an article on Orthodox Jews vacationing in the Alps. While there, he met with Professor Yehuda Blum, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and a Holocaust survivor, who informed him that the “real story of the Jews in Switzerland is the bank accounts left by Holocaust victims.” In October 1994, Levin applied to S. G. Warburg Bank for information on an account of a relative from Poland and was denied any information.4 Within a year, Levin would begin publishing articles on Holocaust victims’ assets in Swiss banks.

On May 8, 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, Swiss President Kaspar Villiger admitted “unforgivable” guilt in a televised message to the Swiss people, and apologized for the Swiss government’s turning back of Jewish refugees at the Swiss border during World War II. With Picard’s and Levin’s writings and Villiger’s pronouncements as catalysts, the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SFJC) approached the Swiss Bankers Association regarding assets that had belonged to survivors. Michael Kohn, the vice president of the European Jewish Congress, asked SFJC President Rolf Bloch to inform Bronfman and Singer of this development. In so doing, they set in motion the opportunity for the WJC to become involved. 

September 14, 1995

On September 14, 1995, Bronfman, along with Singer, Avraham Burg— Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the other co-chair of the WJRO Executive Committee—and Bloch met with the SBA, and the two sides announced the establishment of a working dialogue as well as a central office with a Swiss banking ombudsman. Bronfman had come armed with a letter from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, declaring that he, as president of the WJRO as well as of the WJC, represented “the Jewish people and the State of Israel” in negotiations with the Swiss banks. George Krayer, head of the SBA, told Bronfman and the others that the banks had found nearly $32,000,000 in dormant assets. It also appeared to Bronfman and Singer that the SBA was willing to do only the bare minimum to resolve the problem.

According to Maram Stern of the WJC Brussels office, the Swiss were under the misapprehension that Bronfman was in this simply for the money. The Swiss, Stern explained, asked Bronfman to “name a price” for a lump-sum payment. According to Singer, the Swiss suggested that $32 million was a workable number with which to start. Bronfman held out, as he would later tell D’Amato, for a full accounting of the assets in Swiss banks. But what angered Bronfman the most was the arrogance of the Swiss bankers. As Bronfman related many times, when he walked into the room with the Swiss, he was not even offered a chair. The bankers abruptly gave him an ultimatum: “Take it or leave it.” However, the Swiss would live to regret their callous omission of such a common courtesy.

February 6, 1996

Between the September encounter with the Swiss and Bronfman’s meeting three months later with D’Amato, the Swiss had been silent. Promised some word on the assets and the search for their owners, Bronfman and Singer became convinced, as D’Amato also warned, that the bankers were trying to stall. Yet, at a meeting between the WJRO and the SBA in Bern on December 12, the two sides agreed to a six-point plan calling for, among other things, secrecy in their dealings. It was the violation of this point by the SBA that would signal the descent of Swiss fortunes and the beginning of the search for the truth about the behavior of Swiss banks during World War II.

On February 6, 1996, the WJC was notified that the SBA was going to hold a press conference the following day to announce the final results from their examination of the banks. Considering this a “blatant disregard” of their agreement, the WJC condemned the upcoming announcement. The next day, the WJC went even further in declaring the Swiss move to be unilateral and unacceptable.

The Senate Banking Committee Investigates

By the end of February 1996, the Senate Banking Committee under D’Amato’s chairmanship had begun its inquiry and was seeking the assistance of any federal agency that might be able to provide relevant information. To help us locate and review documents, we enlisted Willi Korte, a German-born attorney-turned-researcher and a tracker of Nazi-looted artwork who had previously worked with the WJC on the Waldheim case, and Miriam Kleiman, a University of Michigan graduate who had worked for a number of Jewish organizations in Washington.

As Korte and Kleiman settled down in the Archives II building in suburban College Park, Maryland, it did not take very long for them to find pertinent records. Korte found 2,100 boxes of documents from the “Economic Intelligence Division” of the Treasury Department. Then, after only a few days of sifting through the dusty brown boxes of onion-skinned papers with the original rubber bands and paper clips, last seen decades before, Kleiman found records relating to “Operation Safehaven.” Up until that time, no one really remembered much about this wartime operation, but soon the world would come to learn a great deal about the effort by the US government to track German external assets in Europe and elsewhere during and after the war. The Safehaven documents would open the door for us to the history of the Swiss banks.

Within a few weeks, documents began to pour in detailing Nazi gold shipments, stolen securities, looted artwork, stolen jewelry, and Swiss collaboration with the Nazis. All the horrors and misdeeds of the past were being brought back to life in the pages of the documents Kleiman and Korte were copying. Within a short time, it became readily apparent that this project was bigger than the two weary researchers could handle, and it was obvious that what was initially thought to be a few days’ work would require weeks and perhaps months of effort.

Trial by Public Opinion

By March, we were preparing to go public. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s during long and fruitless negotiations with the Swiss, American diplomats and negotiators dealt with the Swiss bankers and diplomats on legal terms. At each session with their Swiss counterparts, they laid out their arguments in a legalistic and methodical manner, trying to convince them of the merits of their case. Each time the Swiss would listen and argue back as if they were in a court of law. The mistake our diplomats made then was that they let the Swiss determine the agenda.

By the sheer weight of the information we gathered in less than a month of research, it became clear that we could not, and most assuredly would not, re-fight the battles our diplomats had lost fifty years earlier. Our goal was simple. We would bring the Swiss bankers into a court, but not one like the ones they were used to. In the court of public opinion we controlled the agenda. The bankers would be on our turf and conveniently we would be judge, jury, and executioner. Like it or not, the Swiss bankers would have to play by our rules. As it turned out, they were not very good at it.

On April 23, 1996, the first Congressional hearing in fifty years on the World War II role of the Swiss banks was set. Senator D’Amato had assembled a prestigious group of witnesses for the hearing. Undersecretary of Commerce and Presidential Envoy for Property Restitution Stuart Eizenstat, WJC President Edgar Bronfman, claimant Greta Beer, and Chairman of Julius Baer Bank and a member of the Executive Board of the SBA Hans J. Baer would testify before the packed audience in the Banking Committee Hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Bronfman’s testimony set the tone for this fight. His message was simple:

Fifty years after the Holocaust, as Germany and the collaborationist countries have sought to face their responsibilities and make restitution, there remains the glaring void in the behavior of the banks of Switzerland.
. . . Mr. Chairman, many Jews in Central Europe, and many others in those countries, saw the Nazis coming and made the trip to Switzerland because they thought their assets could be held safely there. They put their faith and trust in Swiss neutrality and the integrity of that nation’s banking system. It appears they were betrayed.

Representing the six million “who cannot speak for themselves,” Bronfman was in search of, in a word, “justice.”

The Swiss, meanwhile, were being somewhat cautious. The Swiss Jewish banker Hans J. Baer testified that the SBA was planning to form a joint commission with the WJC to study the dormant accounts in a detailed way. Independent accounting firms would be appointed “to review funds and property held by Swiss banks that belonged to Holocaust victims,” and the commission would then “verify that the banks have properly implemented the methodology.” He declared that it was the SBA’s “determination that at the end of the current process, any dormant assets in Swiss banks that may have belonged to Holocaust victims will have been distributed to the rightful heirs of the victims, or otherwise to worthy charitable causes.”

Unbeknownst to us, there was about to be another significant development. One day before the hearing, Bronfman had met with Hillary Clinton in New York and told her about the Swiss banks. He also asked her to arrange a meeting for him with the president the next day, which she did. On the afternoon of April 23, Bronfman met with Bill Clinton in the Oval Office and enlisted the president’s support. The following day, among the many clips reporting the events of the previous day, we found one in The New York Post quoting President Clinton as having said that at Bronfman’s suggestion, he would even work with Senator D’Amato to solve the problem. Owing to the events of the time—in particular the pending Whitewater investigation—this was quite a statement.

Meager Results

From the beginning of the campaign against the Swiss banks, the WJC had claimed that the banks were holding as much as $7 billion in Jewish assets that had been placed with them before or during the Holocaust. They arrived at this figure by including looted artwork, jewelry, securities, bonds, and of course bank accounts. Many in Switzerland doubted the validity of this figure and attacked the WJC for estimating such a high number. The SBA insisted that the sum was $32 million and no more. After exhaustive searches, the SBA maintained that it could find no additional assets.

Following the creation of the Banking Ombudsman’s Office to investigate claims against the banks, the ombudsman Hanspeter Haeni received thousands of claims from all over the world. On November 12, 1996, Haeni held a press conference in Zurich to deflect criticism that his office was doing little to help claimants. In announcing the findings, Haeni characterized the WJC estimate that Swiss banks held $7 billion in Jewish funds as “unrealistic to any unprejudiced eye.” He claimed to have uncovered only

$1.3 million in undisclosed assets belonging to only eleven claimants, with only $9,000 belonging to five Jewish account holders. The WJC dismissed Haeni’s findings as “pathetic.” Others criticized Haeni’s methods and correctly described the meager results as adding to the growing mistrust of the banks and Switzerland as a whole.

Unfortunately for the Swiss, among those who did not take Haeni’s representations at face value was former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. He had been appointed chairman of the joint SBA/WJC com- mission that Hans Baer had heralded in his testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, and that was formally announced nine days later. Formally titled the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons, the purpose of what became known as the Volcker Commission was to essentially audit the Swiss banks’ dormant accounts. One of the Volcker Commission’s members was the WJC’s then-treasurer Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder, who is today the organization’s president.

Volcker was so bothered by Haeni’s results that he announced the next day that he would examine Haeni’s methodology to determine why more money was not found. It did not take long for Volcker’s concerns to be validated. By June of 1997, as the Volcker Commission was about to begin its audits, the Swiss banks acknowledged that there were far more so-called “dormant” accounts— including thousands that might have been opened by Swiss citizens for the benefit of persecuted Jews—than the paltry number they had been willing to concede to Bronfman two years earlier.

The Eizenstat Report

On September 26, 1996, Bronfman wrote to President Clinton that “not one ounce” of the hundreds of metric tons of looted Nazi gold recovered by the Allies after World War II “had gone to Holocaust survivors or victims of Nazi persecution.” On October 25, Clinton replied to Bronfman, “The subject of allied and neutral nations’ actions during and after the war to handle Nazi assets and dormant accounts is both important and complex,” and “I have asked Ambassador Eizenstat to look into the matter thoroughly and consider your views.”

On May 7, 1997, Eizenstat released a 210-page study entitled “U.S. and Allied Efforts to Recover and Restore Gold and Other Assets Stolen or Hidden by Germany During World War II— Preliminary Study,” more commonly referred to as the “Eizenstat Report.” Among other things, Eizenstat wrote in his introduction, “The neutrals continued to profit from their trading links with Germany and thus contributed to prolonging one of the bloodiest conflicts in history.” One week later, on May 15, Eizenstat testified before the Senate Banking Committee that:

Swiss actions after the War are the least understandable. After the War, despite appeals from Allied negotiators to consider the moral imperative, the Swiss demonstrated an obdurate reluctance to cooperate with Allied efforts to retrieve and redistribute looted gold. Despite repeated Swiss protestations after the War that they had never received any looted Nazi gold, this report is incontrovertible: the Swiss National Bank and Swiss bankers had to know, as the War progressed, that the Reichsbank’s own coffers had been depleted, and that the Swiss were handling vast sums of looted gold. In postwar negotiations, Switzerland used legalistic positions to defend their interest, regardless of the moral issues also at stake Until last year, the Swiss banks were notably uncooperative in helping identify dormant bank accounts.”

If there had been any doubt before, it was now clear that the Clinton administration, Senator D’Amato, and the WJC constituted a formidable front against the Swiss bankers, whose image was reeling in international public opinion.

“Nothing Less than Extortion and Blackmail”

While on a trip to Switzerland in November 1996, British parliamentarian and WJC vice president Greville Janner suggested the creation of an interim fund, with contributions from the major Swiss banks, from which elderly Holocaust survivors could receive pensions, however modest, to alleviate their suffering. Both Bronfman and D’Amato reacted positively to this proposal, but the Swiss insisted that it was too soon to start talking about money. Calls for such a fund, however, were about to boil over into an international uproar caused by the unfortunate remarks of the Swiss president.

In a year-end interview with the Tribune de Genève, Jean-Pascal Delamuraz, the outgoing president of the Swiss Confederation, rejected out of hand the creation of a $250 million compensation fund. “‘This is nothing less than extortion and blackmail,” he said, adding, “Such a fund would be considered an admission of guilt.” Delamuraz also accused his country’s critics of attempting to undermine Switzerland as a world financial center. WJC Executive Director Elan Steinberg responded that Delamuraz “was not only insulting, but he couldn’t even get his facts straight.” According to Steinberg, “The Jewish side never attached a figure to the good-faith gesture that was proposed. The offer of $250 million came from the Swiss side.” The spokesman for the Swiss Jewish Community said that “the Jewish community feels deeply hurt and finds the remarks are an insult to the victims of the Holocaust.” State Department Spokesman Nicholas Burns commented, “Frankly to make a charge that somehow an agency of the United States government is attempting to destabilize the Swiss banking system, or is blackmailing the Swiss government, is ludicrous.” The Israeli Foreign Ministry formally expressed “regret” concerning Delamuraz’s words.

Sensing an opening, WJRO Executive Committee co-chairs Israel Singer and Avraham Burg declared that normal discussions with the Swiss would be impossible as long as the Swiss government did not denounce Delamuraz’s remarks and that Swiss businesses would face a worldwide boycott if the Swiss government failed to do so. Threats of a boycott had their intended effect within the Swiss political system. The Social Democrats, part of the ruling coalition, joined the WJC’s call for the Cabinet to denounce Delamuraz and days later even demanded his resignation.

The Swiss government realized that it had to do something to placate the growing international hostility sparked in large part by Delamuraz’s remarks. On January 7, the seven members of Switzerland’s Cabinet issued a statement proposing that the 40 million Swiss francs, amounting to $29.5 million, which the banks acknowledged had been found in dormant accounts, should be “put to proper use.” The Cabinet suggested that the money be used to set up “a fund in favor of Holocaust victims and their descendants.” This was precisely the type of fund Janner had suggested only a few weeks earlier. Finally, on January 14, Delamuraz apologized to Bronfman. “I am very sorry that I offended your feelings as well as those of many other people concerned,” Delamuraz wrote, “particularly those of the Jewish community at large. I assure you this was not my intention. The information on which I had based my statement regarding the fund was inaccurate.” Bronfman replied, “I look forward to returning to constructive work together with the Swiss authorities and the Swiss banks.”

“The Swiss Did Not Care to Have History Brand Them as ‘Thieves’”

On March 24, 1948, Swiss diplomat Walter Stucki, then negotiating the follow-up treaty to the 1946Washington Accords, told his State Department hosts that “the Swiss did not care to have history brand them as ‘thieves’.” Nearly fifty years later, Rainer Gut, Chairman of Credit Suisse, made the same declaration. Both men were trying to salvage a bad situation for the Swiss banks. Stucki was thinking about history and perhaps a point of honor; Gut was much more interested in the bottom line: money. In an interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on January 22, 1998, he said that Switzerland and its bankers had just about run out of time to defuse the public relations crisis in Switzerland. He feared that the longer he waited, the more money his bank would lose.

Gut, a realist with the interests of his stockholders in mind, saw that the situation was only getting worse. Each day brought new revelations, and the press, Bronfman, D’Amato, and the growing army of critics at home and abroad were becoming too much for them to handle. Gut approached the other two big Swiss banks, Swiss Bank Corporation (SBC) and Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS), with a proposal to contribute, independent of the government, to a humanitarian fund to offer, in the words of the Swiss government’s point person in this controversy, Ambassador Thomas Borer, “a gesture of goodwill.” What Gut and the others were thinking would cost them little. A humanitarian fund comprising some $70 million was in essence a mere pittance; split by the three banks it amounted to a little more than $23 million each. In reality, a point missed by no one, the banks were buying a temporary peace. Within hours of the publication of Gut’s proposal, SBC agreed to contribute funds. On February 6, Borer announced the creation of the fund. A year to the day after the SBA had enraged Bronfman by unilaterally announcing the results of its supposed survey into the Swiss banks’ dormant accounts, the Swiss banks finally agreed to take a step, however small, however halting, in the right direction.

The Humanitarian Fund

Later that spring, the Humanitarian Fund was formally established. By the end of August, the Swiss Parliament’s Legal Committee voted 12 to 5 to bypass parliamentary approval for a 100-million Swiss franc contribution to the Fund,26 and the following month, the WJC was in the position to submit names of needy Holocaust survivors to the Swiss government and in turn to the Humanitarian Fund. On September 17, the WJC submit- ted the names of close to fourteen thousand survivors in Eastern Europe to the Swiss Consul General in New York. A day later, Hungary’s Jewish community submitted a list of over sixteen thousand names to the Swiss embassy in Budapest. Together, the thirty thousand names would form the beginning tranche of payouts from the Humanitarian Fund. Each of the survivors would receive payments of $1,000. While not a great amount of money, the sum would equal perhaps a year’s worth of pension for the recipients who had never before received compensation for their suffering. On November 7, 1997, in a much-publicized ceremony in Riga, Latvia, Riva Sefere, a seventy-five-year-old Holocaust survivor, was the first to receive a check from the Fund. In December, twenty-three non-Jewish erstwhile victims of Nazi persecution and oppression in Albania, aged sixty-seven to eighty years, each received one-thousand-dollar payments from the Fund. This group was all that was left of five hundred Albanian Christian and Muslim survivors of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. In January 1998, the Fund executive announced that within three to four months, needy survivors in the United States would begin receiving payments.

In due course, the Fund was divided into two sub-groups, with the first responsible for recommendations concerning applications on behalf of Jewish Holocaust survivors, and the second for applications for non-Jewish victims of Nazism. Swiss Jewish leader Rolf Bloch was president of the Fund executive, and the Jewish sub-group was chaired by Sam Bloch, Senior Vice President of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors.

Other Players Join the Fight

In the meantime, other players had joined the fight. In 1996, lawsuits were brought against the banks by a number of high-powered and experienced class-action lawyers. These lawsuits were consolidated before US District Court Judge Edward R. Korman in Brooklyn. When the lawyers for the banks moved to have the cases dismissed on a variety of grounds, chief among them jurisdiction, they were joined by Alfred Defago, the Swiss ambassador to Washington. In an eight-page letter to Korman on June 3, 1997, Ambassador Defago wrote, “The Government of Switzerland believes that continuation of these lawsuits would be inconsistent with proper respect for Swiss sovereignty under internationally recognized legal principles.”

On June 20, D’Amato sent an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief to Korman supporting the plaintiffs. D’Amato wrote that a hearing in a US court was essential to address the issue of “whether Swiss banks violated the laws of the United States or fundamental international human rights laws with regard to their banking activities between 1939 and 1945.” Following the hearing, Judge Korman did not hand down a decision, but he did not strike down the case either. The decision was left open, and so the issues remained unresolved for a long time. Month after month passed but without a word from the judge.

Simultaneously, Bronfman’s coalition was further enlarged by a self-directed group of state and municipal officials willing to add their say and their power to the campaign directed against the Swiss. Alan Hevesi, then the comptroller of the City of New York, threatened investment boycotts of city funds in the New York branches of Swiss banks, and organized a December 1997 conference of public finance officers to publicly discuss the disinvestment option against Swiss banks. This conference would grow in the following year to a nationwide collaboration of more than eight hundred public finance officers who held the public investment portfolios of hundreds of millions of dollars in Swiss banks.

By December of 1997, the WJC concluded that a global settlement could be the way out of the stalemate. Bronfman, who as early as March had suggested that a method could be found to settle the issue out of court, now moved forward with his idea. Elan Steinberg, interviewed on Swiss television, said that the banks had approached the WJC in an effort to seek a settlement, and that if conditions were right, such a settlement might be possible. Bronfman suggested that $1 billion would be a starting point. “If they want complete and honorable closure,” he said, “then it’s going to be a very expensive closure.”

August 12, 1998

Over the ensuing months, negotiations to settle the class-action lawsuits turned into full-scale negotiations toward a global settlement involving the Swiss and US governments, the WJC, and D’Amato, with Eizenstat acting on behalf of the Clinton administration. At 7:00 p.m. on August 12, 1998, D’Amato walked onto the steps of the Brooklyn Court House. Surrounded by hordes of cameras, dozens of lawyers from both sides, representatives of the WJC, and others, D’Amato announced what thousands of survivors had waited a half-century to hear:

I am tremendously pleased and gratified to announce that we’ve reached a historic agreement with the Swiss banks that will bring moral and material justice to those who have suffered for so long and bring closure on these issues around the world and in Switzerland.

After more than fifty years of frustration, rejection, denial, and abhorrent treatment at the hands of the “gnomes of Zurich” as they had been called, Holocaust survivors around the world achieved a strategic and moral victory with this single statement. The banks agreed to settle all claims against them for a sum of $1.25 billion. After two and a half years of “political war” with the Swiss, the fighting was over. It was not perfect justice, but then again nothing like this really ever is. For Edgar Bronfman and the WJC, it was success on a grand scale. What began as a stubborn insistence to not take the Swiss at their word for their historic misdeeds became a historic campaign for justice that spanned the world and put a close to one of the last chapters of World War II.