As one of his last acts in 1943 before he was forced into Majdanek, the Nazi extermination camp near the Polish city of Lublin, Joseph Sapir, a wealthy Jewish banker, placed all of his bonds, stock certificates and cash into a small suitcase and sent it to France for safekeeping by his son, Yehuda.
Yehuda, who kept the suitcase at his home in Paris, died in 1983. After communist rule ended in 1989, his widow, Esther, tried unsuccessfully to cash in the certificates and exchange the cash for the local currency. “The Polish government made everyone believe this was worthless paper,” Edward Fagan, Esther Sapir’s lawyer, said of the cash and certificates.
But Fagan, in a lawsuit to be filed this week in Manhattan Federal Court, said many of the stock certificates Sapir holds are for companies that the Polish government is now selling to large companies and then pocketing the money. Most of the companies buying the Polish businesses are American, including Credit Suisse First Boston, which in 2004 bought 30 percent of Opoczno, a ceramics company, for $1.7 million, Fagan said. Sapir owned approximately 1 percent of Opoczno, Fagan said. Several calls to Credit Suisse were not returned. “She wants the equivalent value of whatever they paid for it,” Fagan said of Sapir. “She and other people — Jewish and non-Jewish — are shareholders in that and other Polish companies and they got nothing. Under New York law, [the sale] was a fraudulent conveyance.”
Sapir also owns a sizeable percentage of a large petroleum company that is currently on the auction block.
The suit opens a new chapter in the recent struggle for Holocaust restitution that began in 1995 when Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, met with representatives of Swiss banks to discuss claims they were hoarding millions of dollars deposited by Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Three years later, the Swiss agreed to a $1.25 billion settlement. One of the key plaintiffs in the suits was Estelle Sapir of Rockaway Park, Queens — Esther Sapir’s sister-in-law. She said her father deposited money in Credit Suisse in Geneva before the war and that when she went to withdraw it in 1946, bank officials refused, demanding to see a death certificate and her father’s secret account number. Estelle Sapir, who died at the age of 74 less than a year after the bank settlement was announced, reportedly settled privately with Credit Suisse for $500,000.But potentially more than $1 billion is at stake in this new suit because the Polish government either has privatized or is planning to privatize hundreds of formerly public companies, according to Fagan.
“Some of these companies exist,” Fagan said as he looked through the stack of stock certificates and bonds Sapir had. “These are companies that were owned by shareholders before the Holocaust, that were seized by the Nazis and then taken by the communists after the war. Now the government is trying to privatize these nationalized companies. It wants to sell them instead of giving them back to their rightful owners.”
Sapir, 70, said in an interview here last week that she is “doing this because my sister-in-law was doing this work” before her death.
Fagan said he accompanied Estelle Sapir to Poland in 1998 to ask the help of Polish banks in tracking down the stockholders and bondholders. “They said they knew nothing about it,” he said. “They said the ghetto was destroyed and that there were no records. There was nothing they could do, they said.”
Esther Sapir said she is “very hopeful” about the prospects for the case. “They owe us; they have to pay,” she said. “It’s mine — it’s our property.”
Sapir lives on a pension in a modest, one-and-half bedroom apartment in a suburb of Paris, Fagan said. He noted that she recently qualified for a German pension and that this money would “make the differences between paying bills and medicine and not.” Asked about the bank settlement Estelle Sapir received, Fagan said other relatives and not Esther were beneficiaries because Estelle knew Esther was pursuing these claims.
Fagan said he is filing his suit now because it was “only in the last two years that we found they were not telling the complete truth about companies owned by Polish nationals — Jews and non-Jews.” Last year, Fagan said, he went to Poland twice with Esther Sapir, in both June and August, and government officials refused to see them. In addition, he said that he and Sapir contacted some of the American companies that bought Polish businesses and “their response was we are a different company — don’t talk to us about that.”
“That is not true,” he said. “They may be a new company now but they were an old company at the point they were sold in the last five or 10 years.”
In his suit, Fagan said he would seek to compel the defendants to publish a list of all the original shareholders of the companies that were sold, as well as a list of all shareholders of companies that are about to be sold. In this way, he said, “people can come forward and be properly compensated for property that was wrongfully taken from them and which has been fraudulently transferred.”
Fagan said he believes these new claims “are even worse than the Swiss banks stealing Holocaust victims’ money, because this is not a situation where they can say that someone else took the money or that they didn’t know what happened. These are simple commercial transactions and the money is tied to specific individuals. If they sell off a company without making sure that all the people who have the paper [stock certificates] are paid, it’s a problem.”
Fagan said his suit would name as plaintiffs Esther Sapir, the Polish Assets Recovery Corp. (“PARC”); the Association for Restitution of Expropriated Assets (“AREA”); and the Polish Industry Association. Among the defendants would be the government of Poland and such American companies as Credit Suisse First Boston and H.J. Heinz, the American-based food company that bought a Polish canning factory.
Zbieniew Kubacki, a minister counselor in the Trade and Investment Section at the Polish Embassy in Washington, said that when his country privatizes companies it is up to the buyer to “pay the claims of former owners and stockholders.” He pointed out that when the confectionery company Wedel was sold to Pepsico in 1991, Pepsico made sure that all of the shareholders of Wedel were paid.
But Fagan said he has documents to prove that countless sales did not take into account stockholders, and as a result Poland’s “entire privatization program is now in jeopardy.”
“Would you buy a company knowing that when you buy it you are buying a lawsuit?” he asked rhetorically. “I wouldn’t. This suit makes buyers look twice. And it can drag on for years. The longer it drags on, the more money it costs them. It is in their best interest to settle this.”