Robert Kaufman of Manhattan, a former president of the New York City Bar Association and legislative assistant to Sen. Jacob Javits, confides that he was "totally amazed" after being notified recently that he would be receiving $180,000 from his relatives’ dormant Swiss bank deposits.
"I had no idea of the amount until I got a copy of the decision" from a tribunal handling the claims process, Kaufman said. "And I didn’t think I was going to get the money so quickly."
About a third of the money, some $60,000, was wired to his bank account two weeks ago. But under a proposal made this week by the special master in the case, Judah Gribetz, Kaufman and other claimants would receive another one-third of the money up front; the remainder would be paid once all claimants were assured of receiving their money. Those age 75 and older would receive the entire amount at once.
Gribetz also proposed this week that payments to slave laborers and Swiss refugees be increased by 45 percent. If approved, slave laborers and survivors of concentration camps and ghettos, would receive $1,450 rather than the $1,000 originally planned. In addition, those who were admitted to Switzerland and then abused would receive $725 instead of $500, and those denied entry to Switzerland would receive $3,625 instead of $2,500.
The proposals were made after Brooklyn Federal Judge Edward Korman asked Gribetz to determine if interest that has accumulated since the 1998 $1.25 billion court settlement (plus money saved because of a law exempting the settlement from federal taxes) could be used to increase payments to claimants in the case.
Since Korman established the process of distributing the settlement money in November 2000, 187 awards have been made to date, totaling about $21 million in dormant funds. Most of the awards, which include about 50 years worth of interest, averaged $100,000. A total of 32,000 claims have been filed with the tribunal and an initial analysis concluded that about 12,000 were potential matches to 36,000 dormant accounts posted by the Swiss banks on the Internet.
Those slave laborers and refugees who have already received their money would receive a supplemental check. Korman is expected to rule soon on the proposal.
To date, 107,423 slave laborers have received their checks, as have 528 Swiss refugees.
Another $12.3 million has been given to organizations that care for survivors in need. Among the organizations are Jewish Family Services in the United States and the Chesed program in the former Soviet Union. Gribetz proposed that their allocations be increased by 45 percent.
Kaufman, 72, who was born in Vienna, said he was unaware that his relatives had Swiss bank accounts until three years ago, when he received an e-mail from a distant cousin, who believed he saw Kaufman’s grandmother’s name on a list of dormant Swiss bank deposits. When Kaufman looked, he found not only his grandmother’s name, Hermine Hirsch-Ebstein, but also those of his mother, Bertha Kaufman, and her sister, Hedwig Landesmann, who were listed as powers of attorney for their mother. Moreover, his mother and aunt had their own bank accounts. All of the accounts were at the Union Bank of Switzerland.
"I don’t know that my mother or aunt ever knew of the accounts, because when we came here we were not well off and I’m sure they would have tried to get the money," he said. "Maybe my grandmother set up the accounts without telling them."
Kaufman said that his grandmother, who came to the U.S. after the war, was from an upper middle-class family and that she did a lot of traveling before the war, including to a spa in Switzerland.
"When I was growing up, I was sent to a [summer] camp in Italy," he recalled.
But after the Nazis marched into Austria in 1938, Kaufman, then 9, was sent to England in December of that year with other children. His sister followed a month later and their mother and father (who briefly was in the Dachau concentration camp) soon followed. They all came to the United States in December 1939.
After looking at the names on the Internet, Kaufman said he was certain they were his relatives and he filed a claim. The tribunal investigating the claim said it determined that the owners never withdrew the money and that it was not clear whether the bank hoarded the money or whether the Nazis seized it.
"But the result is the same," Kaufman said. "They owed it" to him as the sole surviving heir.
Kaufman, a corporate lawyer who specializes in health care at the law firm Proskauer Rose in Manhattan, said that when he learned the size of his inheritance he concluded, "This was not money that one should keep and spend."
"So I set up a fund at the New York Community Trust, of which I am vice chairman, and I am asking them to give it all to charities. I have not yet decided [which ones]. I have also directed that whatever money is left when I die go for refugees and immigrants."
In its research to verify his claim, Kaufman said the tribunal found a tax return filed by his grandmother in 1938. The return, a copy of which was sent Kaufman, itemized all her possessions so that the Nazis could impose a 25 percent tax on everything the Jews owned that year.
"It was incredible to see that in my grandmother’s and mother’s handwriting," he said.