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Suing for price of a nightmare Holocaust: Survivors and their heirs are joining a class-action suit to recover Jewish property from secretive Swiss banks.

The name of the attorney handling claims in Maryland brought by Holocaust survivors and their heirs against two Swiss banks was incorrect in an article yesterday. Her name is Diane Leigh Davison.

The Sun regrets the error.

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It's not much -- a droplet of bullion amid $20 billion being sought in Switzerland by the heirs of the Holocaust -- but it is the price of a nightmare to Claudine Konkowski Davison.

"After all this time, it's an opportunity to give my father what is due to him," says the 58-year-old Davison, a Belgian native who ** moved to Pikesville in 1963.

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"There are so many stories of Jews not taking up arms; well, my father certainly did. He didn't like the limelight and maybe he wouldn't like what we're doing now. But we need to expose the Swiss. They were not so noble."

Davison is part of a class-action suit filed Oct. 3 in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, N.Y., a suit that grows by scores of plaintiffs every day. Aided by recently declassified U.S. documents sealed since the end of World War II, the case may be the payoff for long years of work by people tracking Nazi blood money the way Simon Wiesenthal tracked Nazis.

"I think being neutral was a sham Switzerland tried to play on everybody," says Davison, one of several Marylanders to join the lawsuit so far.

The suit against the Union Bank of Switzerland and the Swiss Bank Corp. is being led by New York attorney Ed Fagan on behalf of Gizella Weisshaus, 66, a concentration camp survivor living in Williamsburg, an Orthodox Jewish enclave of Brooklyn.

The two-pronged lawsuit seeks, with interest, unclaimed money deposited in Swiss banks by Jews trying to protect their assets from a German war machine that eventually caught up with them.

That is the experience of Weisshaus, who says she has been to Switzerland three times to recover money her father put there for safekeeping before he was killed by the Germans. Each time, Weisshaus was turned away because she did not have an account number.

Lawsuit for justice

"After 51 years they think we are fools and maybe my father was also a fool?" asks Weisshaus. "We had to bring our lawsuit to get our justice."

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The second aspect of the suit seeks compensation for the value of Jewish property looted, liquidated and deposited in Swiss banks by the Nazis to bankroll their war.

By about 1942, the Nazis are believed to have nearly bankrupted Germany's reserves. With that in mind, the Fagan team is keen on proving an especially grisly theory: that with each Jewish community slaughtered, a direct correlation exists to gold deposited in Swiss banks by the murderers.

Stonewalled by the Swiss

In tearful testimony at hearings called by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato, a New York Republican, Holocaust survivors have told of being stonewalled by Swiss banks demanding documentation that sometimes included requests for death certificates of relatives killed in concentration camps.

Along with material uncovered by the World Jewish Congress, the hearings point to collaboration by the Nazis and the Swiss. Carlo Jagmetti, the Swiss ambassador to the United States, admitted last week that some families got the runaround: "From a human point of view, some real mistakes have been made."

Swiss banking ombudsman Hanspeter Haeni has called a news conference for Nov. 12 on the status of a search on behalf of some 1,000 people seeking assets that their relatives may have put in secretive Swiss banks. In December, the Swiss parliament is expected to approve the temporary lifting of banking secrecy laws in a sweeping review of Switzerland's wartime role as a financial center.

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The commission's goal is to produce a historical verdict on whether neutral Switzerland profited from World War II.

A Belgian hero

Although Davison knows of no family accounts in Swiss banks and says that her family survived the war with most of their property intact, she has nonetheless joined the suit on the basis of money her father spent bribing Nazis to save Jewish lives.

"My father was a likable man," she says. "I'm not sure of all the tricks he managed, but he worked some kind of magic during the war."

Belgium capitulated to the Nazis 18 days after it was invaded in May 1940 and was ruled by Germany until its liberation in the autumn of 1944. In that time, a Brussels metal factory owner named Maurice Konkowski became a leading hero in the resistance, with his valor commended in a letter from the Allied commander in Europe, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

According to Davison, her father paid a Catholic family to take in her and her sister, two of their cousins and their grandmother for the duration of the war.

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He also bribed the German inspector put in charge of his factory after the Nazis appropriated it for their war effort. The bribes allowed Konkowski to maintain a secret room behind the factory, she said, to print fake work permits and identification cards, and to store arms for the underground.

Again with his own money, he rescued Jewish orphans from institutions run by the Germans and paid for the children to live with families in the countryside. When he wasn't bribing the enemy, he was leading secret assaults against it, including, his family says, raids on trains packed with Jews and headed for death camps.

Maurice Konkowski died in Brussels in 1966. His wife, 93-year-old Itta, still lives there.

A father's accounting

And although she hasn't added up the amount, Davison says her father -- who spoke a sharp German that saved his life more than once when he pretended to be a citizen of the Reich -- kept track of what he spent in two pocket notebooks that have survived.

"The amount is on the small side, based on bribes he paid Nazi officials," says Diane Davison Leigh, Konkowski's granddaughter and an attorney coordinating claims in the Maryland area. "The notebooks have always been in my grandmother's apartment along with medals my father received, one from the Israeli government after the war. I used to play with them when I was little."

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The challenge in winning restitution will be to prove to what extent, if any, a family was victimized by the Germans. Indeed, a huge problem to this point is that no one has produced receipts for deposits made in the Swiss banks. Thus, other means of proving prosperity -- such as pictures of furnishings or homes -- will be necessary.

"We need claims that support the possibility that relatives deposited money in the banks or a claim against someone who took property from them or their relatives," says Dan Johnston, a New York attorney assisting Fagan. "These people deserve a chance to have these claims judged in court."

The legal process is expected to take at least several years.

Remembering the bad days

Although Helen Schultz Hollander isn't sure she'll live long enough to see its conclusion -- and she hasn't yet done any

homework on just what her family lost when the Germans swooped down on Poland -- the 65-year-old Northwest Baltimore resident is thinking about joining the lawsuit.

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To get a better reckoning, she will have to talk about the bad days with her 86-year-old mother in Florida. But she does remember that her father was a dentist, that they had a nice apartment in a border city called Lemberg and that when she was just about to become a teen-ager, she was shipped off to do slave labor.

"I was arrested with my grandmother in 1942 when I was 12," she says. "I was one of the fortunate ones. I was sent to the camps and she was shot."

Pub Date: 11/03/96


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