Academic journal article Defense Counsel Journal

Holocaust-Related Claims and Limitations: Familiar Issues in a New Context

Academic journal article Defense Counsel Journal

Holocaust-Related Claims and Limitations: Familiar Issues in a New Context

Article excerpt

New York's statute of limitations will play a central role in cases seeking recovery of dormant bank accounts and life insurance proceeds

HOW will the New York statute of limitations apply to lawsuits by brought by Holocaust survivors and their children against European business entities that had dealings with European Jews before the World War II? The importance of this question and issue is obvious. Time limitations are central to claims based on wrongs that occurred at the time of the Holocaust, now half a century ago. And much of the litigation will be brought in New York courts or in courts that will apply New York law.

While there has been an explosion of litigation in this area recently, none of the litigation has reached the stage yet where a court could consider application of the statute of limitations in this context.

Six million persons dead, destroyed families, concentration camps, ghettos, confiscation of property--all these characteristics of the Holocaust have become well known. On the other hand, the role of Swiss and other European banks and of insurance companies in relation to property of Holocaust victims has not been explored as well. Until recently, knowledge about confidential accounts Jews opened in Swiss banks before the war and life insurance policies they bought "just in case" at the dawn of the war belonged mainly to the memories of individual Jewish families. It was not in the public domain.

After World War II, Holocaust survivors or members of their families began to make attempts to access family bank accounts in Switzerland, but the absence of death certificates of the account holders, or the inability to produce lost code numbers, resulted in the refusal of bank officials to provide access to accounts or to investigate bank records. Practically nothing could help. Explanations that "the code was lost when we were searched and stripped down on our first day in Auschwitz," or that "our house was destroyed with all the financial papers" did not work. Retaining Swiss attorneys was ineffectual. Appeals to the Swiss government brought nothing but polite and maddeningly useless replies.

This continued for years, until 1996 when publicity hell broke down on the heads of the Swiss bankers.

There are many explanations in today's academic legal press as to why the issue of aftermath of the Holocaust became so heated again. Among the factors named as contributing to the eruption of political and legal activity are the reopening of important archive sources in the former Soviet Union and countries of Eastern Europe, the declassification of thousands of documents at the National Archives and the Treasury and State departments in the United States, and the re-emerged interest in the World War II leading to a re-examination of Switzerland's role in pre- and post-war times.(1)

It is not the purpose of this article to evaluate these events. It is enough to say that the re-examination of history and the attempts to correct old wrongs has resulted in traditional litigation activity, and this, in turn, inevitably raises questions of the application and propriety of statutes of limitations.


Nobody knows how many accounts opened by victims of the Holocaust still lie dormant in Swiss banks. Nobody disputes that Swiss bank secrecy law and the banks' high reputation for confidentiality and stability attracted many Jews in the unstable political situation of pre-war Europe.(2) Another factor that made those banks attractive for hiding assets was that in Switzerland, unlike in many countries, inactive accounts were not required to be turned over to the government at some point. Then, as now, such accounts remained property of the client and were continued to be held by the banks.(3)

Hence, it is entirely possible that the dormant accounts still exist and may be located and turned over to the people to whom they rightfully belong. …

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