In this absorbing and suspenseful historical narrative, Jane Schapiro meets a double challenge. First, she explores the legal and social complexities of a “class action.” She also clarifies the diverse facets of a very notable Holocaust related class action suit. Extending from October 1996 through August 1998, a team of dedicated lawyers effectively sustained a bold class action against Switzerland’s largest and most prominent banks. These mammoth institutions Included Credit Suisse, The Union Bank of Switzerland, and the Swiss Bank Corporation. Schapiro, a freelance writer and poet, draws on extensive research, court transcripts, and interviews with politicians, attorneys, historians, and survivors. Many chapters of her account begin with excerpts from the profoundly affecting letters of actual survivors represented in the legal action, each one appealing to the deeper “conscience” of codified, written law. In his plea to the Swiss banks Fairness Hearing, one letter writer describes the “physical mess in our bodies, in our souls,” that “all survivors” have been forced to endure. His own father, a Holocaust fatality, “was a master mechanic and a machinist in motors and equipment. He was sending the checks to Germany and to Italy and Switzerland for machine parts and motors. I don’t have papers. I cannot show. I just know that he sent it.”
Son of Jewish-Polish immigrants, Michael Hausfeld was the Washington-based attorney who led the legal team seeking economic justice for such survivors. Their case had to transform the vague entreaty of “I just know” into a compelling legal argument. While Hausfeld’s father had escaped Poland in 1939, many of his close relatives had tarried and were subsequently murdered by the Nazis. Hausfeld acutely felt that the major Swiss banks had failed in their “special international obligation to protect the assets of Holocaust victims.” With a solid professional reputation that could merit a fee of $435 per hour, Hausfeld still insisted that he and his entire team work “pro bono” without immediate compensation. As Schapiro explains, congressional legislation enacted in 1966 had expanded the power of class action claims; in fact, such suits could level the complex, litigious playing field. Attorney Mel Weiss, one of Hausfeld’s team of lawyers, had successfully taken on one corporation after another as he extended class action suits to personal injury and product liability cases. For Hausfeld, the suit would join technical legal proof with the charge of heinous crimes against humanity. In his argument, the Swiss banks had been partners in a “Faustian pact” by “cloaking assets derived from slave labor, and by receiving and converting looted goods into usable currency for the Nazis.”
As it developed, the suit drew on a forty-five page report from a “Committee of Experts.” The report determined that sixty percent of assets looted from European Jewry had moved through Switzerland which starting in 1941 had the only currency that could be freely converted to other national currencies. The resulting charge of the Holocaust Victims Assets Litigation was for a ten billion dollar payment from the accused Swiss banks. While Hausfeld’s legal team was experienced and well prepared to conduct the class action in an American court, the Swiss bankers, in the author’s view, “were naively complacent.” Such collectivized claims do not exist in the Swiss legal system, and the bank executives were unaware that the “noise” created by such a suit can often be enough to bring about a settlement. Schapiro deftly creates suspense as she moves toward the decisive details of the out-of-court settlement. After considerable wrangling, Hausfeld’s team gained a 1.25 billion dollar judgment, but the resolution also divided the class of victims into five distinct categories. These were The Deposited Assets Class, The Looted Assets Class, Slave Labor Class I and II, and the Refugee Class, composed of those denied entry, expelled, or abusively mistreated by the Swiss authorities.
Such an outcome, in one attorney’s view, was an amazing “miracle.” However, the settlement’s very wide range of victim categories could inevitably disappoint and anger some of the potential recipients. A “class action,” Schapiro observes, “can include hundreds of thousands of individuals who are dispersed across the globe.” In this case, 1.4 million notice packages were sent out to class members in at least 48 countries. Nevertheless, the author stresses that the accused Swiss banks were required to pay out 1.25 billion dollars. Such a number can serve “as an important symbol. It is a statement that proclaims to the world that a great wrong was committed.” Bibliography, index, notes.