Estelle Sapir was remembered this week as a survivor who came to symbolize the plight of European Jews denied access to Swiss bank accounts opened by relatives murdered in the Holocaust.
"She served as the rallying cry for justice," said former New York Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, who spoke at Sapir’s funeral last week. "She epitomized the lengths to which institutions went to deny the claims of the heirs of the victims of the Holocaust."
Sapir was 73 when she died at her modest, second-floor walkup apartment in Far Rockaway, Queens.
A frail woman who had long been in ill health, she captured the world’s attention in 1996 when she testified here before the Senate Banking Committee D’Amato chaired. She explained that when she went to Credit Suisse to withdraw her fatherís money after World War II, she was told that she needed to produce his death certificate.
"Hitler didnít give me a death certificate," she told D’Amato.
"I remember those words very well," D’Amato said this week. "It was chilling."
Sapir said she tried several other times over the years to withdraw her father’s money but was turned down.
D’Amato cited her case in virtually every speech he made on the subject, saying it was an example of how the entire Swiss banking industry had hoarded the money of Jewish victims of Nazism. And she was featured in one of his television commercials that highlighted his efforts to reach a settlement with Swiss banks.
Sapir, who never married, reached an out-of-court settlement last year with Credit Suisse that reportedly was about $500,000. Despite the settlement, Sapir insisted upon remaining a plaintiff in a class-action suit brought by survivors against all Swiss banks.
"She never wanted the money for herself," said D’Amato. "Even after she received a substantial settlement, she did not want to settle for fear it would compromise the other survivors."
So Sapir remained a plaintiff, saying her father, Jozef, had deposits in more than one bank. Last August, the Swiss banks entered into a $1.25 billion settlement of all claims against them.
"Hers was a clarion call to arms," said D’Amato. "I think that in many respects she was kept alive because of the battle. Only when she saw that a measure of justice was achieved could she rest."
D’Amato called Sapir "a heroine" who demonstrated that one person can make a difference in behalf of tens of thousands of others.
"Not withstanding her small stature," he said, "she looms as a giant in the battle for justice and for all who were victimized."