French, British banks sued for Holocaust restitution
In this story:
December 17, 1997
Plaintiff Anna Zajdenberg
Web posted at: 9:04 p.m. EST (0204 GMT)
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Nearly 60 years after Germany invaded France, a group of French-born Jews who were victimized by the Nazis are suing for restitution.
CNN has learned that a class-action lawsuit was filed in
federal court here targeting French and British banks for recovery of lost assets that once belonged to Jewish families.
Those families include some of the 75,000 French Jews who perished in Nazi death camps. Many of them were deported to the camps with the collaboration of the French wartime government, known as the "Vichy" government because its capital was the town of Vichy in southern France.
The plaintiffs ask for a "full accounting" and "recovery of expropriated assets not returned to the defendants or rightful owners," according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
The defendants are nine banks accused of blocking or wrongfully converting assets of French Holocaust victims. They are either banks that operated in France during World War II, their predecessors or their successors.
The French-owned banks are Credit Lyonnais, Banque Paribas, Societe Generale, Banque National de Paris, Credit and Commercial de France, Credit Agricole, Banque Francaise du Commerce Exterieur and Banque Worms Capital Corps.
The British-based Barclay's Bank was also named in the suit and was one of the primary banks where Nazi officials kept the proceeds of forced Jewish property sales, according to the suit.
2 New York women are plaintiffs
About 75,000 French Jews -- including 12,000 children -- were deported from France to death camps such as Auschwitz
All of the banks have branches in New York, a reason the suit was filed here. Also, two New York women who survived the Holocaust as children hidden in non-Jewish homes are the named plaintiffs in the suit.
One of them, Anna Zajdenberg, said: "I am sure that many people who are in my situation will be able to possibly join this class-action suit and retrieve what is basically ours, because we have lost not just people. We have lost a whole legacy."
She added, "I don't bear any anger to my native country. I bear anger to those people I don't know who ... did what they did. I don't want to poison myself with anger, but I certainly want ... to have access to those records and see what has happened."
Between 1940 and 1944, the Vichy government passed 143 laws discriminating against Jews, including one that defined Jews as a separate race and not entitled to the protection of French law.
The Vichy regulations deprived Jews of their private property, forced them to give up ownership of businesses, froze their bank accounts and barred them from government employment.
Typically, Jewish property was "Aryanized," or turned over to non-Jewish trustees. By September 1942, the lawsuit states,
more than 60 percent of the bank account assets of all French Jews had been transferred into a special government account.
Beginning in 1942, Vichy authorities began rounding up Jews for deportation, and then initiated convoys from France to Auschwitz. By the end of the war, one-quarter of France's 300,000 Jews died in the death camps.
Banks accused of withholding information
The lawsuit contends that the French banks "continue to hold significant records and assets of Holocaust victims and survivors for which they have not given an adequate accounting."
Kenneth McCallion, a plaintiffs' attorney, said: "Banks in France at that time and now tended to keep very good and accurate records ... and we believe a thorough review of those records" will provide the information necessary for "an adequate accounting and, hopefully, restitution can take place."
The suit seeks records of what was looted -- cash, gold, art, jewelry, businesses, equipment, securities, bonds and the like.
It also says the banks have "misrepresented and concealed vital information" from the victims and failed "to conduct searches for then-existing blocked bank accounts."
The plaintiffs seek the return of looted and deposited assets and compensatory damages to be determined at trial.