Vatican Bank faces S.F. lawsuit over looted Nazi gold

Ukrainian and Yugoslav Holocaust victims — some of them Jewish — are part of a class-action lawsuit filed in a local court against the Vatican Bank and a Catholic monastic order.

Originally filed at the U.S. District Court in San Francisco in November, the suit was amended Jan. 21 to include three new plaintiffs, including a Jewish college professor in Vermont whose parents escaped a Yugoslav slave labor camp on the day he was born in 1944.

The lawsuit is seeking restitution from the Vatican Bank, the Franciscan order and several unnamed private banks, all of which allegedly profited illegally from the Holocaust by accepting valuables stolen by the Nazi-backed Ustashe regime.

Only two of the seven current lead plaintiffs are Jewish, but since it is a class-action suit, others can sign on, said the lawyer who filed the suit, Thomas Easton. He works out of his home in the Northern California coastal town of Crescent City.

The suit alleges that gold and other assets worth about $170 million today, not including interest, were looted by the Ustashe and safeguarded by the Vatican after World War II. Vatican officials in Yugoslavia allegedly collaborated closely with the Croatian-led Ustashe, which also wreaked havoc in Ukraine.

"Restitution could reach hundreds of millions of dollars which would be distributed to the tens of thousands of victims of the Ustashe regime and their descendants," Easton said in a press release.

More than 600,000 Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and other Yugoslavs were killed by a brutal Ustashe terror campaign during German occupation, which began with an invasion in 1941.

The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust reports that between 20,000 and 25,000 Jews were killed at the diabolic Jasenovac concentration camp, which was actually a complex of subcamps in close proximity to each other on the bank of the Sava River.

Igor Najfeld, the Vermont professor who was born in Yugoslavia, contends the numbers were even higher. He says that of the approximately 75,000 Jews who lived in Yugoslavia before the war, at least 50,000 perished.

"Our lawsuit is basically about the loot, but the people who are plaintiffs are interested in some recognition of this hidden Holocaust," Easton said. "It's a Holocaust that has been largely unreported in our history books."

Easton said that he and his law partner, Jonathan Levy of Cincinnati, are just getting started on the suit and "it could drag on for years."

A priest at the Franciscan order's Western Province headquarters in Oakland, who didn't want his name used, said he hadn't heard of the suit. When told Easton and Levy were targeting the Vatican Bank, he laughed and said, "I wish [them] luck."

Undaunted, Easton said more than 20 people, most of them Serbs, have joined the class-action suit "and the number is growing every day." So far, no one from the Bay Area has signed on.

The Ukrainian Union of Nazi Victims and Prisoners, and the Organization of Antifascist Resistance Fighters, representing more than 300,000 Ukrainian victims of the Ustashe, are also part of the suit.

While not saying they are overwhelmed, Easton said he and Levy operate a small law firm and are hoping to be associated with "a big firm, before too long. We're just small lawyers, and this is a huge suit. We're going to be facing some of the richest defendants in the world."

The Vatican Bank, which handles financial transactions for the Roman Catholic Church, has refused the U.S. State Department's request for an accounting of the Ustashe assets in its control, the suit contends.

The National Law Journal, out of Washington, D.C., reported that Vatican Bank officials wouldn't comment on the suit. The legal publication quoted Angelo Caloria, the bank's chairman, telling reporters in Rome that the bank "has carried out investigations into similar kinds of issues for a long time now, and nothing of the sort has been confirmed."

Easton readily admitted, "It might be, in the end, that the Vatican Bank…has the lawsuit dismissed in California. They [might] technically evade it by arguing jurisdiction."

Still, Easton is hopeful of a settlement. Moreover, he said the Franciscans' Oakland-based province falls within the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

He also said "the long arm of jurisdiction in California can extend around the world if somebody does business here, and we believe the Vatican Bank does business here."

Easton is prepared "to have our expert witnesses come forward and show they [Vatican Bank] do have hidden ownership of the Bank of America." There is no readily available hard proof of this, he added, "so we're going to have to run it down and prove it with our expert witness."

The main expert witness, Easton said, is author John Loftus, who wrote "Unholy Trinity: the Vatican, the Nazis and the Swiss Banks" in 1992 and "The Secret War Against the Jews: How Western Espionage Betrayed the Jewish People" in 1994.

The two lawyers are busy translating the amended lawsuit into Italian so the two main defendants can be served in Rome, Italy. The U.S. District Court has set a June deadline for that to be accomplished. Only after that happens can the suit proceed in California.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Easton said.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.