Doubting D’Amato

Doubting D’Amato

Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, who has been appointed to mediate a survivors’ suit against German and Austrian banks, is calling all parties together Jan. 7. But how much clout he will wield is open to question.

D’Amato faces several hurdles toward any real progress, according to those familiar with the case. First, several of the banks are named in more than one lawsuit. Dresdner Bank, for instance, is named in five suits brought in behalf of survivors by different lawyers: three were filed in Brooklyn Federal Court and two in Manhattan Federal Court. But D’Amato, who will be earning $350 an hour, is serving as a special master in only one of those suits at the behest of Manhattan Federal Judge Shirley Wohl Kram. Those familiar with the case wonder how he hopes to reach a settlement in that suit independent of the other cases.

D’Amato, who leaves office in January, could not be reached for comment.

In addition to Dresdner Bank, the other banks involved in the suit D’Amato will be handling are Deutsche Bank, Bank Austria AG, and its subsidiary, Creditanstalt AG. The suit alleges that the banks conspired with the Nazis to profit from looting Jews, taking everything from their cash and securities to their wedding rings and other jewelry.

D’Amato, who has championed the cause of survivors for the last two years and is credited with helping win a $1.25 billion settlement against Swiss banks, will also have to convince the banks that he can be impartial. The banks have maintained a cold silence about his appointment.

In addition, there have been settlement talks in Germany in recent weeks. Germany’s new chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, has made a concerted effort since his election in September to resolve survivors’ lawsuits against German banks, industry and insurance companies. His chief of staff, Bodo Hombach, has reportedly met three times with those firms to work out a settlement. The World Jewish Restitution Organization, the United States and Israel have participated in these talks.

German companies involved in the talks include Dresdner and Deutsche banks, Volkswagen, BMW, Siemens, Krupp, Degussa, BASF, DaimlerChrysler, and Allianz insurance. It is also alleged in the suits that the industries profited from Jewish slave labor.

A government spokesman said after the last round of talks two weeks ago that negotiations have been "more complicated than expected" and that discussions were expected to continue into the new year.

A source familiar with the bank negotiations said the banks were interested in resolving the suits and not becoming embroiled in a protracted debate with Jewish groups and survivors, as the Swiss banks did before they settled their suits in August.

"We all take a very strong lesson from what they didnít understand they needed to do," he said. "But the German banks" approach to this was very different after the war than the Swiss. More than 100 million marks have already been paid. The German government saw to it that those with verifiable claims got paid. And now the German chancellor has initiated a process that we think has a certain importance and that should proceed. How does that fit into what D’Amato is doing?

"It’s difficult to see how it’s going to play out. The banks want to do the right thing, but they are not sure how the different influences are going to lead to a universally agreeable solution. There are so many cross-currents that it is hard to see how it is going to develop."

An attorney for the survivors, Edward Fagan, called D’Amato’s selection a "marvelous choice," pointing out that he knows the issues and can help expedite a settlement.

"He started the cases with us and we hope he will finish them," said Fagan.

These talks come at a time when seven French banks have expressed "regret" that Barclays Bank chose to go it alone and settle claims leveled against all eight of them in a lawsuit by survivors. Barclays announced the creation of a $3.6 million fund to repay an estimated 335 French Jews whose money was seized from their Barclays’ accounts in 1941 by Nazi occupation forces and by the collaborationist Vichy government during World War II.

Barclays agreed also to make available historic documents that detail how the bank’s French branches operated during World War II. The bank said it would seek to find those depositors or their heirs through advertisements, and that whatever money remains unclaimed will be given to Holocaust-related charities. The settlement is subject to court approval.

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said his organization welcomed Barclays’ decision. But he said the French banks have not sought to resolve the claims. "The issue is justice and accountability and the French banks appear to be taking a page out of the Swiss banks’ early playbook," he said.

A spokesman for the French banks, Michael Freitag, said the banks have been "working for the past two years with the government-appointed Matteoli Commission that is looking into all issues dealing with the confiscation of assets during the war by the Nazisí collaborationist governments. The banks are committed to making full restitution but believe this is ultimately a French issue that must be dealt with in France."

He noted that under French law, the deposits and records of dormant accounts are turned over to the government and that this issue is now in its hands.

Steinberg said the WJC is now in discussions with Chase Manhattan Bank, which has acknowledged that its Paris branch seized about 100 accounts of Jews after the Nazi occupation.

"We welcome their initiative and are currently working out the details of a process that will resolve outstanding issues in a non-confrontational manner," he said.

When the Nazis swept into France, they took 1 billion francs in December 1941 from the bank accounts of Jews, Steinberg pointed out. He said the Matteoli Commission found that after the war only one-third of that money was returned to its owners.

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