Alice Fischer, her two younger brothers and her parents lived the good life in the 1930s. A grand piano sat in the living room of their mansion in Munkatch, Czechoslovakia, a valuable art collection adorned the walls, the table was set with sterling silver, and the family wore gold jewelry while servants attended to their every need.
The Nazis changed all that, killing her entire family and confiscating her home and all of her possessions. When Fischer sent in a questionnaire late last year to request her family’s share of the $1.2 billion Swiss banks’ settlement with survivors and their heirs, she included a picture of her family and another of their mansion.
“I want people to know that it really happened,” she explained, “and that my parents didn’t die in vain.”
Fischer was one of a half-million claimants who filled out the questionnaire, many of whom also sent in family pictures and birth certificates. An estimated 210,000 of them were survivors; the rest were their heirs, according to Morris Ratner, a partner of the law firm Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein of San Francisco, which was appointed by Brooklyn Federal Judge Edward Korman to represent the claimants.
The information from the living survivors — which is first being analyzed now — is believed to be the largest compilation to date. By some estimates it could represent as many as half of the survivors alive today, although others place the number of survivors as high as 860,000. And it offers what is probably the largest data base to date about living survivors, many of whom provided often poignant glimpses into how they endured the Holocaust.
Fischer, 71, who said she refused to accept German reparations because she considered it “blood money,” said she had no hesitation in applying for the Swiss settlement because it “is a repayment of a fraction of what they owe us.” She said her father, a wealthy businessman, told her that he had deposited money in Swiss banks between 1934 and 1944, when he and the rest of the family were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps. She alone survived and was left penniless.
When she attempted to get her father’s money after the war, she contacted six Swiss banks. Each demanded and received 500 francs to conduct a search for the money, and one insisted on a death certificate for every member of her family. Although she paid for the searches, the banks never acknowledged that he was a depositor.
“They became rich on us and no one should profit from such a human tragedy,” said Fischer, who lives in Queens. “There is a moral issue here. The Holocaust was not just a calculated killing; it was a calculated profiteering from the victims.”
Ratner said all of the responses to the questionnaires are to be entered into a computer and eventually made available to scholars on a confidential basis. He said that based on a representative computer sample of 5,000 responses, he was able to determine that slightly more than 80 percent of the respondents were Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. A similar number of claims were from those who had their assets looted — not by Swiss banks but by others who then laundered profits from the assets through the banks.
“The settlement is designed to get the banks to disgorge any unjust enrichment,” said Ratner, who noted that about 1 percent of those claimants had any documentation to support their assertion.
About 22 percent of the respondents claimed to have deposited assets in Swiss banks, but of those, only 1 percent said they had documents to prove it and only 13 percent said they knew the amount on deposit. Another 16 percent said they believed the family had a safe deposit box in a Swiss bank. But only 1 percent of the claimants in the former Soviet Union made such claims, Ratner said, because although they had assets stolen by the Nazis, they did not have access to Swiss banks.
The analysis of the questionnaires further revealed that about 42 percent of the respondents had slave labor claims — they asserted that the companies for which they were forced to perform slave labor may have deposited their profits in Swiss banks. That number was much higher — 63 percent — among Eastern European claimants.
Another 4 percent of the respondents said they were either denied entry by Switzerland or were allowed in but mistreated or later deported.
The largest percentage of the claims — one-third — came from the United States and Canada. It was followed by Israel with 25 percent, the former Soviet Union with 24 percent, Eastern Europe with 11 percent, Western Europe with 5 percent, 1 percent from Latin America and the rest from other parts of the world, including South Africa, Kenya and New Zealand. About half of the respondents from North America and Israel are survivors, compared with an overall average of 42 percent. In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, only about 30 percent of the claimants are survivors.
Ratner said that about a quarter of the respondents “wrote long, hand written, painful stories” of what happened to them during and after the Holocaust.
“The thing that sticks in my mind is how similar the stories are,” said Ratner, who has read many of them. “There is also a great similarity between Jews and non-Jews, both of whom were forced to perform slave labor. But the difference was that the non-Jews were not worked to death, which was the end game for the Jews. As a result, the stories from the Jews were even more horrific.”
“It was very difficult reading,” Ratner added. “It makes you realize that no sum of money the Swiss could have paid would have eased the suffering of these people. You also get a sense that this is a fading population, with the average age in the late 70s and early 80s. There were some people who were too old to fill out the application and had to have caretakers do it for them.”
Ratner said the sample results were made available to the court-appointed special master, Judah Gribetz. He will use it in making a recommendation by March 15 to Judge Korman regarding the allocation and distribution of the money.
After public comment, Korman is slated to issue a final plan for allocation and distribution in May and the money should all be disbursed by the end of the year, Ratner said.