Local survivors ask if Swiss settlement is actually unjust

"It's very positive to have reached a settlement while it's still of use to the survivors," said Eva Maiden of Palo Alto, who helps lead a local support group for them.

But San Bruno survivor Eddy Wynschenk calls the deal, announced Wednesday of last week, a "scam."

Just 12 when the Nazis invaded his native Holland, Wynschenk has no details of his murdered parents' assets. The records were lost or stolen during the war. Many survivors in a similar position will never see reparations of any kind, he believes.

"I was never told by my parents how much money they have. You don't talk that way to a child. How can one prove one way or the other?" he said.

"I want justice today — after 53 years — for all survivors, be it for gold, bank accounts," he added. "I put survivors together in one big boat."

So does Lucille Eichengreen of Kensington, who survived the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

She believes the settlement money should be divided among all living survivors — estimated at between 500,000 and 600,000 worldwide — with those existing in poverty receiving additional compensation.

"My father did not have a Swiss bank account, but that is neither here nor there," the 70-year-old survivor said. "After 55 years, I would like to see a penny."

Survivors and their kin who will get a piece of the settlement will be compensated over the course of three years. Because survivors are aging and dying, Wynschenk, 71, is angry that those who negotiated the settlement agreed to that stipulation.

"The World Jewish Congress and the lawyers involved sold us out," Wynschenk said. "They never should have agreed to that kind of deal. They should have said `lump sum.'"

The first installment of $250 million should be paid within 90 days after U.S. District Court Judge Edward Korman formally approves the agreement. Korman presided over a class-action suit filed on behalf of 31,500 plaintiffs against Union Bank of Switzerland and Credit Suisse.

Subsequent payments of $333 million each will be made on the first, second and third anniversaries of Korman's approval, according to those familiar with the case.

"Everything that happens now has to happen very quickly in order to be of the slightest aid," Maiden stressed. "There are people in need whose need is present daily."

Maiden, a psychotherapist whose family fled Vienna to Switzerland shortly after the Germans invaded Austria, believes the settlement may have psychological ramifications for some survivors and their families.

"The important psychological aspect of this is the occurrence of some kind of acknowledgment," said Maiden, who is vice president of Tikvah, a self-help organization for survivors. "Of course, acknowledgment is never enough. It can't ever be enough."

What's more, she added, "there are many survivors whose suffering has not been acknowledged by Germany or by other countries."

Maiden doubts whether the $1.25 billion settlement will hasten progress in other reparations quests. Those include a multibillion-dollar federal class-action suit against European insurance companies believed to be holding unpaid claims owed to survivors and their heirs.

"It's really not connected — any more than the peace settlement in Northern Ireland influenced the Israelis," she said.

But Odette Meyers, a French Jew hidden by non-Jewish families during the war, believes the Swiss settlement could have another important residual effect — bringing to light what she sees as a historical connection between anti-Semitism and greed.

"If you make a group totally vulnerable and they have no other recourse, you can steal their land," said the Berkeley resident, 63. "There are vultures in our world. The problem I see is we don't call them vultures."

The just-announced settlement, she said, forces the public to examine how countries used Jews' misfortune as a chance to plunder their property. She wants the settlement's legacy not only to be money but truth.

"I'm glad for all those Jews who are getting a settlement; it has been very, very painful for them to go through this all these years," she said. "And I'm glad for the Swiss because I think they need to put it behind them."

Linda Breder of San Francisco, who survived Auschwitz, was also glad to hear of the settlement. "Maybe we'll see the light," she said.

Still, the 74-year-old is hardly jumping for joy.

"It's too late and too little," she said, maintaining that once the settlement money is divided, plaintiffs may receive what amounts to little more than welfare. "We were the victims and we are still the victims. It's frustrating. So many years fighting for justice and where is justice? Where?"

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.