One man spent two years as a slave laborer in Nazi Germany, working for a company whose profits were deposited in a Swiss bank.
A woman died of starvation in another factory but her son, who now lives in New York, does not know if Swiss banks profited from her work.
The Nazis seized another man’s home, but he managed to escape to the United States with just the shirt on his back. He does not know if any of his assets found their way to a Swiss bank.
How much should these survivors and the son receive from the $1.25 billion Swiss banks are setting aside to settle Holocaust-era claims?
Brooklyn Federal Court Judge Edward Korman will make that decision based on the recommendation of lawyer Judah Gribetz, whom Korman appointed a special master in the case on March 31, the day all parties finally signed a settlement that had been announced Aug. 12.
Gribetz’s Solomonic decision regarding the allocation and distribution of the money will be made Dec. 28. The judge will hold a hearing May 30 to approve the ultimate disposition of the funds, which then will be dispersed immediately. Before that, as part of the claims process, survivors and their heirs will have a chance to offer suggestions.
During the next several weeks, full-page ads will be placed in more than 500 publications in 40 countries and 27 languages announcing the start of the claims process. Press conferences will be held June 29 in such cities as New York, Paris, Jerusalem and Budapest to announce the event. At the conferences it will be made clear that individuals did not have to have Swiss bank accounts to be eligible for a share of the money.
The ads will contain a mail-in coupon for an "initial questionnaire" that will explain details of the claims process. That survey is being mailed as well to hundreds of thousands of survivors worldwide whose names already are on file. An automated toll-free number to obtain the questionnaire will be posted on the Internet.
The questionnaire spells out who is eligible to receive a portion of the settlement and solicits suggestions regarding its allocation, according to Morris Ratner, whose New York law firm, Lieff Cabraser, is overseeing the $12 million notification program. That figure could swell to $20 million, depending on the number of applications received.
Money for the program will be deducted from the $1.25 billion settlement, as will up to $25 million some of the survivors’ lawyers said they plan to seek from the court for expenses and fees.
Ratner said survivors or their heirs who do not opt out of the settlement by Oct. 22 are precluded from bringing their own suit. That also is the date by which people must notify the court that they wish updated information on the claims process. Those requesting further information are asked to write to Holocaust Victim Asset Litigation, PO Box 8300, San Francisco, CA 94128.
According to the parameters developed by the judge and attorneys in the case, those eligible for a share of the money must belong to at least one of the following categories:
Those who had assets on deposits with a Swiss bank prior to May 9, 1945.
Those whose assets were looted by the Nazis and laundered through Switzerland.
Those who performed slave labor for firms that deposited their proceeds or profits in Swiss banks.
Those who unsuccessfully sought refuge in Switzerland to escape Nazi persecution, only to be denied entry or, after gaining entry, were deported, detained, abused or otherwise mistreated.
Those who performed slave labor at a work site that was located or controlled by a Swiss entity, even though they may not have been a victim of Nazi persecution.
"It is going to be hard to decide how to distribute the money because most of the people who would have been able to make claims are dead, as are many of their heirs," said Ratner. "And many of those who are alive have no evidence or were children at the time of the Holocaust."
He said a story he has heard repeatedly from child survivors is that their parents told them of a Swiss bank account that they should tap should anything happen to them.
"But they don’t remember the bank or the account number and they can’t prove their claim," said Ratner. "Given how hard it is to prove these claims after all these years, how do you decide who gets what?"
Gribetz, a former deputy mayor of New York and past president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, declined to be interviewed for this article. He is an agent of the court and therefore prohibited from speaking on the record.
But those close to Gribetz describe a man who is taking great pains to be fair and impartial, yet is conscious of the gravity of the case and the need to do justice for the victims of the Holocaust and their heirs. Survivors who have met with Gribetz in the last several weeks have come away overwhelmed by the complexity of the case.
Gribetz told one, "I want a solution that’s simple, efficient and fair," and he added, "I don’t want to be a censor," promising to send to the judge other recommendations from survivors.
The number of possible plaintiffs indicates the magnitude of the problem he faces. According to court papers, lawyers in the case estimate that there are 860,000 worldwide, including 300,000 in Israel, 200,000 in the former Soviet Union, and 140,000 to 160,000 in North America. Add to that the heirs of Holocaust victims and the number swells to 2.8 million.
Gribetz has told visitors that he believes it is his "obligation" to consult with historians to try to get the records of all Jews who worked as slave laborers before attempting to determine if the firms they worked for had any Swiss connection. He is also said to be interested in learning if there are records of Jews who were turned away at the Swiss border or who were maltreated in Switzerland. But his research will be limited by his time constraints.
Some are expected to argue, however, that Gribetz should take a broader view. Under this reasoning, because the Nazis looted the property of virtually all Jews and a percentage ended up in Switzerland, all survivors and their heirs should benefit from the settlement.
Gribetz also must decide if all of the money should go to the survivors and their heirs or to groups that provide assistance to survivors. The World Jewish Restitution Organization voted in December to ask the court to allocate 55 percent of the money to survivors, 25 percent to survivor support groups and 20 percent for educational and commemorative programs. The WJRO pointed out that its lawyers are receiving no fees from the settlement.