Estelle Sapir of Queens, whose 52-year fight to gain access to her father’s Credit Suisse bank account epitomized the plight of Jews denied access to the Swiss accounts of Holocaust victims, is on the verge of reaching a six-figure settlement with the bank, The Jewish Week has learned.
The settlement would be the first approved by the court involving a plaintiff in the class-action lawsuits filed by Holocaust survivors and their heirs against Swiss banks for allegedly hoarding money deposited by Jews who were later murdered in the Holocaust.
Edward Fagan, the lawyer who filed the first class-action suit in Brooklyn Federal Court in 1996 on behalf of Sapir and 20,000 other plaintiffs, declined to discuss the proposed settlement. Calls to Credit Suisse were not returned.
Sapir’s story of being turned away by officials of Credit Suisse when she sought to withdraw her father’s money after the war was among the most poignant heard during a Senate banking hearing conducted last year by Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.).
“They demanded that I give them my father’s death certificate,” recalled Sapir, 71, of Rockaway, who said she could see her father’s bank records on the desk of the bank officer. “But Hitler didn’t give me a death certificate.”
News of the imminent settlement of Sapir’s case came as negotiations intensified to reach a so-called global settlement of all claims against Switzerland stemming from the Holocaust. Talks were held this week in New York, Washington and Switzerland among representatives of the three largest Swiss banks, lawyers for the class-action suits and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which represents Holocaust survivors worldwide.
Sources said the pace of the talks picked up this week in an effort to reach agreement before state financial officers were to meet here Thursday to consider resuming a boycott of Swiss banks. A three-month moratorium on boycotts imposed by California, New York and other states to allow the banks to resolve all World War II-era dormant accounts ends March 31.
Adding pressure to the banks was an announcement Tuesday that the New York State Banking Department had joined D’Amato in opposing the merger of two of Switzerland’s largest banks, Union Bank of Switzerland and the Swiss Bank Corp.
In a letter to the Federal Reserve Board, which must approve the merger, acting Superintendent of Banking Elizabeth McCaul wrote that the license granted by foreign banks to operate in New York “is a privilege, not a right. … The home offices’ seemingly inattentive regard for the depositors who fell victim to the Holocaust, or their heirs who have never received funds to which they are entitled, raises regulatory questions about the character and fitness of these banks’ privilege to maintain operations in the United States.”
She detailed one case in which a woman sought to locate a Swiss bank account opened by her wealthy sister and brother-in-law only to be told in 1964 that it did not exist. The woman inquired again in 1996 and was informed last April that the account was located in the Lausanne branch of UBS. The bank offered to release the balance, $10,000, based on records it had going back to 1986. It offered no explanation of why the existence of the account had not been disclosed earlier, as required by a 1962 Swiss law.
The woman refused the money as insufficient and sought help from the newly opened New York State Holocaust Claims Processing Office, which demanded that UBS provide full records of the account. After two months, UBS produced records from 1978 — eight years earlier than the bank previously acknowledged.
The records, McCaul suggested, indicated that UBS had looted the account — the bank was unable to explain a withdrawal of more than 7,000 Swiss francs — and a “disturbing pattern of excessive charges and gross mismanagement, all to the detriment of the customer.”
In fact, McCaul said, the fees were so great that the cash balance in the account “fell to below zero,” a condition UBS remedied by selling some of the account holder’s securities it held.
McCaul said that in light of this mismanagement, UBS increased its settlement offer to $100,000 and that the woman, who is in her 90s, and her son, in his 70s, reluctantly accepted it even though it was “nowhere near the amount the claimant believes the account would be worth today.”
For Estelle Sapir, who lives alone in a one-room apartment with a bathroom down the hall, the imminent settlement of her case could not come too soon, according to Fagan.
“The fight to reclaim her family’s assets has taken its toll on her,” he said. “She is very sick, suffering from depression, stress and malnutrition. She has lost 40 pounds in the last year, and she was thin before. Hopefully a settlement will be concluded while she still has the ability to enjoy what her father left her before the war.”
He recalled that her father had once told her that if anything happened to him, she would be well taken care of because of the money he left in Swiss banks. Fagan said that any settlement reached with Credit Suisse would not satisfy claims she has pending against UBS and other Swiss banks.The executive director of the World Jewish Congress, Elan Steinberg, said a settlement of the case would be “wonderful for Estelle Sapir and now we pray for a positive resolution for the tens of thousands of other Estelle Sapirs.” He noted that in addition to the issue of dormant bank accounts, still to be resolved is the issue of German looted assets that were in Switzerland at the end of the war — reportedly valued today in excess of $11 billion.
Fagan said that any settlement would be announced by D’Amato, “who has championed her claim from Day 1. D’Amato started this fight [against the Swiss banks] two years ago. If there is a settlement, it would be a great victory for the whole process and for D’Amato.”
A spokesman for D’Amato had no immediate comment.