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The Victim's Fortune: Inside the Epic Battle Over the Debts of the Holocaust Hardcover – June 4, 2002
"You can't make the dead good again. We can only take a modicum of justice--a modicum of attempting to somehow right wrongs in a small way for those who are still alive." So remarked a Holocaust survivor on receiving compensation--small, but meaningful--for the tortures he had suffered six decades before. That compensation, for him and thousands of other victims, was a long time in coming. When it did, it was not done out of innate goodness on, say, the part of the banks of Switzerland, which had held billions of dollars deposited there by men and women who would not live to claim them--even though, financial journalists Authers and Wolffe are quick to remark, those banks were staffed by good and well-intentioned people. What compelled those banks, along with companies and governments throughout the world, to do so was massive legal action, a chain of class-action lawsuits that stretched out for half a decade, brought on by lawyers, victims, and civil rights groups in a dense storm of argumentation. In this careful, complex study, Authers and Wolffe detail how these actions took shape against very long odds. Their book is a fascinating case study in justice served--if, some critics continue to charge, too little and too late. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Authers and Wolffe, journalists for the Financial Times, trace the efforts made from 1995 to date to win compensation for those who lost assets and endured forced labor at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators in WWII. They talk to the heads of Jewish organizations and senior American government officials, all of whom were fighting on behalf of the victims, as well as to the victims' lawyers. Using strategies such as threatened boycotts, calculated emotional outbursts, public pressure campaigns and class action suits, this group of Americans targeted European banks that had pocketed balances belonging to Holocaust victims, insurers who never paid out life insurance proceeds, and industrial concerns that benefited from forced (and even slave) labor during the war. Though impressive settlements have been negotiated, the story is a dispiriting one, regardless of how one feels about reparations: each new episode in the battle generated recriminations and bitterness among the plaintiffs, and distribution is the most contentious phase of all. Some of the lawyers are drawing multimillion-dollar fees while their clients receive amounts in the low thousands. Certain Jewish organizations that had led the compensation campaign are now fighting Holocaust survivors for control of the money. Authers and Wolffe's well-researched and nuanced book demonstrates how the struggle for reparations has simultaneously been a fight for justice and a vindictive squabble over money.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
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It is a very sensitive and emotional subject that has been treated by the authors with tact. John Authers and Richard Wolffe have done an excellent job at remaining unbiased and even handed which cannot be said for some of the other books on the same subject.
(New York: HarperCollins, 2002) might help me understand the strange
process by which the Claims Resolution Tribunal goes about granting
awards to Jewish claimants for a small percentage of the money that
the tribunal decided to give them.
The book did no such thing. I read the first 106 pages which were filled with gossipy details about the many competing lawyers, dropping snide remarks about many of them along the way, especially Ed Fagan, whom the authors describe as a small-time personal-injury lawyer (even though Fagan was well enough off to afford having his office on the 84th floor of the World Trade
The book is also filled (up to where I stopped reading) with other
put-downs, such as the one where U.S. District Judge Edward Korman
tries to have the competing lawyers bury the hatchet by inviting them
to dine at Gage and Tollner, a non-Kosher Brooklyn eatery where poor
Israel Singer has to make do with a glass of water.
In the end, an award is hammered out. But there are many references
to a separate audit by a group headed by Paul Volcker, and to an
Independent Committee of Eminent Persons (ICEP). None of this is
explained. Nor is the process by which the ICEP determines who will
get what, whether the information is based on the Volcker audits, why
only 35% of the award is paid out while the rest is held back in case
of competing claims, even though claims were closed several years ago.
I now know a great deal about how some of these lawyers acted without
hope of being paid while others (Fagan is targeted here, along with
some others) are acting on a contingency basis. But I still know
nothing about the process in operation.
Starting on Page 107, the authors do their thing about insurance,
slave labor, property confiscations, etc. I could not bear to punish
myself any more.
The authors meticulously give their sources for what participants say and do, and, by having visited many of the major protagonists are able to sketch accurate and very lively pen-pictures not only of people but of locations: there are 45 pages of notes and sources and a full index - the general reader may not need them but they are there to reinforce the veracity of the account.
It would have been easy to have been less than even-handed to some of the powerful characters encountered in the book: it is a tribute to the authors that they maintain an even keel while charting the reader through a variety of events which could easily have seemed an incoherent maelstrom. The story starts in 1995 and culminates in June 2001 when payments of $5000 begin to be made to the dwindling band of holocaust survivors. The six years saw the involvement of a swathe of characters, from Jewish leaders, lawyers, bankers, insurers, judges, to President Clinton and Christoph Meili, a security guard at UBS who found in the course of his patrol that key documents had been put ready in the shredding room. In return for his whistle-blowing he had to flee his native Switzerland when he received death threats and warnings that his children would be kidnapped, and make a home in USA, the first Swiss citizen ever to seek asylum there on grounds of political persecution.
It is a roller-coaster of a book with new, well-defined and important characters arriving in most chapters. It is a fascinating read both for the issues involved and the egos on display. I have only had time to read the book once and will certainly do so again. It is no exaggeration to refer to the epic battle over the debts of the holocaust: I am profoundly grateful to the authors for opening my eyes to the reality of how deals get made, who truly benefits in such a tangled web. Lawyers, companies, governments even, had their own agenda: the payment was too little, too late; to quote one former slave-labourer "if it had been earlier or larger, it would have been no more moral".
This book is a triumph and deserves to be widely read.