A new computer program to improve the chances of matching Swiss bank claims against dormant Holocaust-era accounts, plus a tentative agreement by Swiss banks to release the names of 5,000 more dormant bank account holders, may result in the return of up to $800 million to their rightful owners.
That assessment came at a closed-door meeting last week of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the central organization that deals with restitution issues involving Germany and Austria, according to Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress and a member of the Claims Conference.
If it proves accurate, it would mean that Brooklyn Federal Judge Edward Korman, who is presiding over the $1.25 billion Swiss bank settlement, would not have as much as $600 million in unclaimed bank assets to distribute, as previously believed.
As a result of that analysis, plans by Claims Conference members to develop a plan for the distribution of the unclaimed assets were shelved for at least 18 months while attempts are made to match 80,000 claims against dormant Swiss accounts.
Korman had held a hearing April 29 seeking suggestions on how the unclaimed assets might be distributed. Survivors in the United States and Israel argued that they deserved special consideration because two previous allocations from the settlement had gone largely to needy survivors in the former Soviet Union.
But the special master helping the judge in the case, Judah Gribetz, had said in mid-April that there might be a sufficient amount of unclaimed funds to care not only for those in the former Soviet Union but to provide home health care and other programs for survivors worldwide.
To help speed the claims review process, Korman has asked the Claims Conference to conduct its own computer searches from its office in Manhattan. Until now, the searches have been conducted in Zurich by members of the Claims Resolution Tribunal, which works for the court.
“The court would have liked to have moved the entire search here, but the Swiss refused,” said Greg Schneider, chief operating officer of the Claims Conference.
The disclosure that there might not be millions of dollars available for distribution caught many Claims Conference members by surprise, according to interviews with members of the group after its annual meeting here last Wednesday and Thursday.
In addition to that revelation, the Claims Conference also held what was described as a “raucous” three-hour meeting last Thursday at which its 24 member organizations agreed to convene a blue-ribbon panel to better coordinate restitution efforts.
The panel had been suggested by Israel Singer, president of the Claims Conference, and Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress. It was endorsed by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s finance minister, who said in a letter that he welcomed such a committee to examine the “efficiency, transparency, relevance and coordination in restitution efforts.”
Although Netanyahu did not say it in his letter, it is known that he and other Israeli officials are upset that Israel is not a member of the Claims Conference despite the fact that it is home to the highest number of survivors in the world.
Bobby Brown, the Jewish Agency’s representative on the Claims Conference, said that Israeli officials believe a blue-ribbon panel would be able to address this and other issues.
But not everyone at the Claims Conference meeting supported the idea.
“I am ashamed to say that there were some people who did not want to engage in a dialogue with the Jewish state,” Steinberg said.
Exactly who or why is unknown, however, because the leadership of the Claims Conference continued its practice of closing its meetings to the public and the press. A formal request by The Jewish Week to have the meeting opened during the discussion of the blue-ribbon panel was denied.
Although the Claims Conference resolution creating a blue-ribbon panel specifically states that the “independence and autonomy of the Claims Conference shall be maintained in any such process,” at least two participants said those words are not binding.
“The revolution has begun,” Steinberg said.
Brown said the fact that the Claims Conference “agreed to sit around a table with Jewish leadership from Israel and around the world is a victory” for those who want change.
Asked about a sentence in the resolution that specifically rules out any consideration by the blue-ribbon panel of restitution efforts in Germany and Austria, Brown said: “I am sure that together we will be able to view the entire spectrum of restitution and the restitution process and create a better, more powerful approach to restitution everywhere.”
“I think everyone realized that the only thing more holy than public funds are public funds coming from Holocaust resources,” he said. “Not only must we do the right thing, but we must be seen to do the right thing, and that must be based on inclusion. Any process that is begun must include at its center Holocaust survivors, the State of Israel and the various service providers in an effort to create a comprehensive and inclusive system.”
But Julius Berman, chairman of the Claims Conference, said he interpreted the resolution to mean that there will be no merger of the Claims Conference with the World Jewish Restitution Organization, as demanded by some Jewish leaders. The WJRO handles restitution issues in countries other than Germany and Austria.
“Nobody is suggesting a way to do it better in terms of Germany and Austria,” Berman insisted.
Berman said he and Singer would select the members of the blue-ribbon panel in coming weeks. Netanyahu said in his letter that he hoped the panel would complete its work within 90 days of being formed.
The disclosure that searches of Swiss bank records have begun paying off for those who claim the banks hoarded the deposits of Jews killed in the Holocaust came during a presentation by Schneider.
In a later interview, Schneider said that Swiss banks until now have published the names of 21,000 bank account owners whose Holocaust-era accounts have been inactive since the war.
Before the new computer program was used, about 2,000 of those accounts were matched with claims submitted following the Swiss bank settlement in 1998. But Schneider said the new computer program has produced 539 “very strong matches with exact or similar names” to dormant account holders and another 4,500 “with varying degrees of likelihood.”
The new computer program takes into account the “migration of Jews with different languages and countries and names spelled differently,” Schneider said. “For instance, the name Philip could also be spelled Philipe. A person who knew her uncle Philip had a bank account might have filed a claim using both of those spellings. The original check would not have found a match, but the new program considers more potential matches and found that he had spelled his name Fillip.”
Schneider said the new software also considers nicknames, maiden names, former names and similar-sounding names. Thus, both Shawn and Shaun would show up, as well as Greg and Gregory and Shmuel and Shmuli.
On June 15, representatives of the Swiss banks and Brooklyn Federal Judge Frederic Block approved the release of the names of another 5,000 Swiss bank depositors whose accounts have been dormant since the war and who are believed to have been Nazi victims.
The Swiss Federal Banking Corp. must give approval before the names can be published on the Internet. Schneider said that once they are published, relatives of those account holders will have a chance to file claims for the money in those accounts.
To date, bank claimants have succeeded in receiving $165 million from 2,270 accounts. Of the total $1.25 billion settlement, $615 million has been paid or allocated.
The settlement called also for payouts to slave laborers; 162,631 people have received $235 million. Another 3,149 Swiss refugees received $8.5 million in compensation. And 100,000 needy survivors are receiving $205 million in compensation for looted assets. That brings the total number of individuals who have received money from the Swiss bank settlement to 268,000.