Swiss Banks - "The Missing Billions "

(printed from Sunday Herald Sun, November 29, 1998)

Millions of dollars in cash, gold and jewellery was locked away in bank vaults like these as war began. But when their Jewish owners returned to reclaim their wealth, the banks laughed in their faces.

Hillel’s story typifies the frustration and injustice suffered by many of Australia’s Holocaust survivors at the hands of Swiss banks.

Since the Holocaust assets issue became public in 1996, 62,000 inquiries from victims and their relatives have been made, and Australia has assumed a unique significance in the struggle.

St Kilda lawyer Henry Burstyner, a Polish Jew, first became aware of the issue in October 1996. He had a personal interest - he was born in 1945 when his parents were in the Nazi labour camp at Jumbool, Poland.

The family emigrated to Australia after the war, and the young Henry eventually began a career in law. His first effort to become involved in the assets search was to place an advertisement in the Australian Jewish News, bringing letters from across the nation.

This was hardly surprising - Australia’s 10,000 Holocaust survivors are the highest per capita in the world, excluding Israel. Today, more than 1,000 survivors are searching for lost property and possessions.

But the Swiss Bankers’ Association (SBA) has acknowledged only one in five, a total of 208 Australian applications for compensation, as formal claims.

Yet, even the reluctant Swiss acknowledge Australia’s significance - in 1997, SBA identified four cities with priority for claims: Tel Aviv, New York, Budapest and Sydney.

The Australian Government has been reluctant to help its Jewish citizens in their fight for justice. When more than 40 nations turned up for a London conference in 1997 to co-ordinate international efforts, Australia, with the 10th largest Jewish community in the world, was absent.

In 1996 Burstyner’s early efforts were meeting with frustration. His first move was to seek legal help from within Switzerland.

Of the 24 law firms he wrote to, 22 refused assistance, and the remaining two demanded upfront fees of $10,000 each. So Burstyner travelled to Switzerland and called at the offices of the Swiss Bank Corporation. "Forget the whole affair. You’re wasting your time," he was told.

As the world became progressively more aware of the unfolding drama - both Time magazine and Newsweek ran cover stories in February 1997 - international opinion of the Swiss nosedived.

Kirby writes: "For 50 years Swiss safe deposit boxes have been an essential tool in the accumulation of wealth from corruption and vice across the world.

"Money had been pouring into Switzerland throughout the war, and the country of six million emerged in 1945 in considerably better shape than the victors or the vanquished."

But Kirby writes that as the assets search issue escalated: "The Swiss banks woke to a publicity nightmare so ferocious it has rubbed off on the image of Switzerland itself."

The world’s most powerful PR companies were enlisted to put a positive spin on the rapidly worsening situation. But even their efforts failed to halt the rising tide of revulsion, contributed to from within the country by students protesting against their government’s inaction.

Perhaps the worst damage of all was inflicted by the case of Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) security guard Christoph Meili, who discovered a pile of pre-war banking documents in the UBS archives division, loaded and about to go into a shredder.

Grabbing an armload of documents, many of which dealt with the forced sales of Jewish property, Meili alerted Zurich’s Jewish community to his awful discovery.

UBS sacked Meili and had him arrested for breaking Swiss banking laws. The bank offered no explanation for its shredding of vital evidence.

Within months, UBS had become "public enemy number one for Jewish groups around the world", and beyond the help of even the most adroit of PR campaigns.

Burstyner entered the fray against UBS when he took on the case of Fairfield Hospital researcher Jakov Kaldor.

"More than any other Australian case, the Kaldors’ dealing with UBS displays the alarming gap between the slick public relations presentation the Swiss banks mount for the media, and the heartless bureaucracy which often presides behind closed doors," Kirby writes.

Jakov’s father, Samuel, was a wealthy Jew with shipping, banking and property interests in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. He deposited the considerable remains of his fortune with UBS in 1940.

Jakov’s battle to claim his inheritance began soon after his arrival in Melbourne in 1956, and reached a low point when UBS demanded death certificates for Samuel and his partners, at least one of whom had died in a concentration camp.

The insensitive nature of the suggestion that murdering Nazi camp controllers were signing death certificates as they herded victims into gas chambers could have eluded only a Swiss bank.

Eventually, Jakov and his relatives received a confidential settlement from UBS, believed to be $300,000, but only after four days of tough negotiations by Burstyner.

If the Jakov case was a pyrrhic victory, the story of Zypora Frank, a British schoolteacher, was even more heartbreaking. Her Polish parents spent the war in a Siberian labour camp, and provided Zypora with documents relating to their pre-war property holdings.

Among these was a tile factory owned by Zypora’s grandfather at Chrzanov, land for which she and her brother were finally able to establish ownership. There was one problem. The Nazis had built Auschwitz on it. "When I found I owned part of Auschwitz it overtook my whole life," Zypora said later. "I went to pieces."

Last year, on July 24, SBA bowed to condemnation of its role and issued an initial list of 2,000 dormant accounts deposited by Jewish families from around the world, and held by Swiss banks for more than 50 years.

"These families were killed in concentration camps or died of starvation," Kirby writes. "Whatever their story they were dealt a raw deal by a rich and morally decadent banking system.
"The publication of the list represented a watermark in the history of Holocaust asset restitution…from a banking system which had been cold-hearted, arrogant and anti-Semitic at points in its history."

On August 12 this year a second breakthrough came when an agreement was struck between Swiss banks and Jewish restitution pressure groups for $2 billion to be distributed over three years among 30,000 Jewish claimants worldwide. Two billion Australian dollars - a far cry from the description given on February 23, 1996 by UBS president Robert Studer. The total in dispute, he said, was "peanuts".

My Mother’s Diamonds, by James Kirby, Prentice Hall.

If anyone you know has a claim and "a shred of hard evidence" you can email:
Henry Burstyner

Swiss Bank Resources