Holocaust survivors and their supporters told a federal judge today that they are willing to accept--grudgingly--a $1.25 billion settlement in their lawsuit against Swiss banks.
Most plaintiffs "are not in favor of the settlement," Leo Rechter, head of a Holocaust victims organization, said during a day-long hearing in Brooklyn. "But they are sick and tired of the shenanigans that have been going on for years and years and years."
Rechter was among hundreds of people who packed a courtroom for a hearing on the proposed settlement in the suit, in which Holocaust survivors and heirs accused the banks of withholding money deposited during World War II. U.S. District Judge Edward Korman invited plaintiffs to comment on whether the settlement is fair.
Lawyers from both sides claimed the vast majority of the nearly half-million potential plaintiffs worldwide support the settlement, which was reached after more than 14 months of negotiations.
Without it, the "practical alternative was prolonged, complex and difficult litigation," said Peter Widmer, a lawyer for the banks.
Plaintiffs' attorney Burt Neuborne also defended the settlement, saying: "The moral question is going to be dealt with outside this courtroom. . . . We did the best we could with the legal claims."
Many Holocaust victims deposited money in Swiss banks as the Nazis gained power in Europe, expecting to retrieve it later. But after the war, many of the heirs were thwarted when they tried to claim the assets.
Some plaintiffs testified that they are backing the settlement to make sure poor, elderly Holocaust victims see some compensation before they die. Others said they are outraged that attorneys are seeking more than $12 million in fees and are worried about a loophole in the agreement that appears to bar recovery of looted art from Switzerland. Some are anxious about how the money would be distributed.
On behalf of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, Israel Singer warned against viewing the settlement as "moral restitution" for those who perished at the hands of the Nazis.
The $1.25 billion "is a lot of money," Singer said. "But the people who deserve to get it are not sitting in this courtroom."
If Korman rules that the settlement is fair, the next step will be for a court-appointed special master to circulate a draft plan for distributing the money. Korman is to hold a final hearing on May 30.
After that, officials hope to begin distributing money, perhaps in the second half of next year--55 years after the end of World War II.