Richard Weisberg, a professor of constitutional law at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, will be named Jan. 22 to the Legion of Honor, the highest decoration of the French Republic, during ceremonies at the French Embassy in Washington. The author of the book, “The Vichy Law and the Holocaust in France,” Weisberg will be cited in part for helping Jews recover about $50 million in deposits that were looted from French banks during the Vichy regime.
Q: What did your book deal with?
A: How French lawyers, judges and law professors who were trained to believe in equality under the law responded to the Vichy laws that brutally distinguished between Jew and non-Jew, and brutally punished those who were defined under their own laws as being Jewish. I was amazed to find out that although many people did struggle privately — I saw memoirs and private papers of many people — publicly only one or two in the legal profession protested.
How did their laws differ from the Nazis?
During the four years of the regime there was an argument over who is a Jew. They wound up including people with only two Jewish grandparents. The Nazis in occupied France required three Jewish grandparents before considering a person Jewish.
What happened to the one or two who publicly protested?
One law professor, Jacques Maury, wrote that the laws so violated our traditions that they would not be implemented by French lawyers and judges. That never happened. … When people take such a courageous position … they are not punished. The [regime’s] only worry was whether others would get on the bandwagon. Nobody did. He could have become a hero if there had been critical support for his position.
What was the French response to your book?
Even though my book revealed a lot that is not favorable, the French knew that what I was doing was not just throwing stones but bringing out the potential for good even during this terrible period.
Please explain the lawsuit against French banks in which you represented Jewish victims whose money had been looted from those banks during the Vichy regime.
The French decided to settle the case in 2000. We worked for eight years to help maximize restitution for the victims. Their accounts had been blocked and their safe deposit boxes were sealed, and often securities in the boxes were looted. We were able to recover about $50 million and return it to the victims or their heirs.
Can victims of the Vichy regime still recover looted bank assets?
Any victim can still apply for banking and material losses, such as apartments, cars or businesses. … I feel deeply honored that the French feel that given the nature of my work that their country has benefited from it.