With heart-wrenching appeals, survivors compete for Swiss funds

new york | Clara Schwartz grew up in Hungary, where her father owned a textile business and a winery. Then World War II erupted. Schwartz survived Auschwitz, immigrated to Brooklyn in 1956 and found work in a sweater factory.

Now an ailing widow at 81, she carries a satchel with a faded picture of her mother and a long list of the prescription medications she requires each month.

She lives on $911 per month in Social Security payments and occasionally receives reparation payments of $900 from Germany — not enough for her to afford the $350 in pills she needs each month. Yet Schwartz refuses to seek assistance.

“I am very proud,” she says.

Schwartz was one of some 200 needy Holocaust survivors and groups from around the world appealing last week to the U.S. District Court of Eastern New York in Brooklyn. Recounting tales of unimaginable heartbreak, they hope to gain a share of the $1.25 billion Swiss banks settlement.

Estimates of the number of survivors in the United States range from 109,000 to 174,000. They are among 80 groups or entities — ranging from the Israeli government to Roma, or gypsies — vying for a share of nearly $600 million expected to be left over from the 1998 Swiss bank settlement after compensation is paid to survivors or their heirs whose bank accounts were taken from them.

So far, Judge Edward Korman, who is overseeing the settlement, has awarded $593 million of the settlement’s $1.25 billion, though only $155 million has gone to 2,000 of the estimated millions of Swiss bank account holders. The rest went to others who suffered because of Switzerland’s ties to Nazi Germany, including refugees and slave laborers in Swiss and German firms.

Under a legal principle known as cy pres, or “next best,” Korman and an adviser, Judah Gribetz, have signaled that the rest of the money should go to the world’s neediest survivors, whom they say live in the former Soviet Union and Central Europe.

On Thursday, April 29, survivors and groups made their heart-wrenching appeals to Korman. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which oversees social services for an estimated 225,000 Jews in the former Soviet Union, screened video interviews and presented biographies of survivors subsisting on pensions or other meager incomes of $155 to $420 a month.

“As someone who has observed poverty and deprivation around the world, those in the FSU are the poorest and the neediest on earth,” said Steve Schwager, the JDC’s executive vice president.

Also weighing in was the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which along with the Jewish Agency for Israel submitted eight bids for nearly 48 percent of the remaining money, to aid 508,100 survivors in Israel — almost half of the survivors left in the world.

Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs, told Korman the Israelis have “strong disagreements” with indications from Korman and Gribetz that survivors in the former Soviet Union should get top priority once Swiss account holders have been compensated. Israeli survivors “must be taken into account,” said Sharansky, who spoke via video hookup from a Berlin conference on anti-Semitism.

The Israelis also have maintained that Korman should adhere to a general rule applied on other Holocaust restitution fronts, that 20 percent of all monies go toward Holocaust education and remembrance. Nobel Prize-winning author and survivor Elie Wiesel underscored that point in a letter to Korman.

“Nothing has been mentioned about memory,” said Ruth Brand, 76, an Auschwitz survivor who volunteers at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel.