Blood money out of a stone

It has taken 50 years for Estelle Sapir to get her inheritance back from a Swiss bank.
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The Independent Culture
Estelle Sapir blew up her first bridge at the age of 16. A year later she had graduated to trains. The time was the First World War, and the self-styled "fearless devil" daughter of a wealthy Jewish investment banker was fighting with the French Resistance.

"They took me in, gave me false papers, showed me how to use dynamite, and that was that," she recalls. "I knew it was dangerous, but I always said, if I die, I want to die free."

Today, at 72, Sapir is physically frail and has a speaking voice that barely rises above a whisper. But the young girl who bombed trains and survived by her wits in a French forest is clearly in evidence, once she is drawn into conversation.

Then, an urgent, feisty, take-no-prisoners attitude manifests itself, a trait that clearly kept her alive, then sustained her during the half- century battle with Swiss banking authorities that followed liberation.

"The last time I saw my father he said to me, `if you survive, don't worry. There is plenty of money for you. I have deposited it at Credit Suisse'."

"And when the war ended I approached the bank. I had the paperwork [records show that he deposited $18,000, worth $350,000 today], and they just dismissed me. They insisted I needed a death certificate to make a claim on my father's account."

While living in Paris after the war, Sapir returned to Credit Suisse 20 times between the years 1946 and 1957. "They refused to deal with me each time. But I knew that eventually they would be held accountable. I was prepared to wait, because I knew my time would come."

Indeed, it came last week, when Swiss banks reached a historic $1.25bn deal with Holocaust survivors and victims' descendants, settling a class action suit filed in the US that had accused the banks of retaining assets either deposited by Jews or looted by the Nazis.

As one of the litigants, a jubilant Sapir, on the steps of the US Federal District Court in Brooklyn, had her picture flashed instantly around the world. Her image immediately put a face to the estimated 44,000 Jews who are believed to have had money and property held in Swiss banks.

"This is not charity," says Sapir forcefully. "This money belongs to the survivors. This is rightfully ours. I personally don't want a penny from the Swiss in reparations. I simply want my father's money."

Since immigrating to the United States in 1969, Sapir has lived alone, in a one-room apartment in Rockaway, Queens, with her tiny dog for companionship.

Sapir, who has never married, worked in a drugstore for 27 years before retiring. She now says she plans to use her settlement money, which is estimated to be $500,000, to rent an apartment and to indulge her nieces.

"I am 72, one of the youngest who fought this case. There are survivors in their eighties and they need the money now. This is about letting all survivors and their families live out the rest of their lives in peace."

The circumstances of Sapir's personal history is one that Swiss authorities are likely to hear over and over again in the coming months as they sort through reams of records in an attempt to restore property to its rightful owners.

She was born in Warsaw to a secular Jewish family. Her father, a banker, began making deposits of cash into Credit Suisse in 1938, as the Nazi war machine increased its mobilisation efforts.

It was a prescient move, for in August 1941, after the family decamped to Paris, they were rounded up and dispatched to concentration camps.

Estelle Sapir escaped in 1942 and was taken in by the Partisans. Hiding in a bordello, she was trained in the intricacies of dynamite and promptly put to work. Her father meanwhile was exterminated at Magdanek concentration camp. In 1946, on being reunited with her mother in Paris, Sapir made the first of her many attempts to pry open her father's accounts and reclaim the family money. The fact that she was all of 18 and Jewish did not endear her, to put it mildly, to the buttoned-up Swiss banking authorities.

To hear her tell it, their attitude toward her oscillated between patronisation and silence. "It was like dealing with the Gestapo all over again. They insisted I needed a death certificate. I pleaded with them. I told them there were no records from the camps. I started to scream at a bank manager, `what do you want me to do? Find Hitler or Himmler and ask them to sign my father's death certificate?' "They just looked at me blankly, every time. The arrogance was unbelievable."

Undeterred, Sapir returned continually to Switzerland until her mother begged her to give up.

"She said that every time I returned my depression was so severe, and asked that I stop. So I did, but I never gave up hope, because I knew one day they would have to open their vaults."

The family's assets had been lost for nearly 50 years when Sapir heard on the local news that the New York Senator Al D'Amato had initiated an investigation into property belonging to Holocaust survivors (many of whom live in New York in his constituency), deposited at UBS and Credit Suisse and protected by secrecy laws.

Immediately she contacted him, and within 24 hours was sitting in his office recounting the story of her family. It was a tale D'Amato was to hear many times in the ensuing months, culminating in Sapir's becoming a signatory to the class action suit filed last year by several survivors and the World Council of Orthodox Jewish Organisations, to recoup Jewish assets.

"This is about more than money," Sapir says now, of the $1.25bn settlement. (The first payment of $250m will be made in the next three months and annual payments of $33m will be disbursed over the three years.) "This is a victory for the 6 million who died," she maintains, "for all those people who are now ashes."

"The agreement brings moral and material justice to those who have suffered," says Senator Al D'Amato. But he adds that, with the Swiss case now settled, he will move on to French and American banking institutions that he believes are also holding Jewish property.

Sapir's joy is tempered by the thought that the Swiss were brought to heel by a combination of US authorities threatening sanctions and the efforts of a nightwatchman, Christoph Meili, who saved records from the shredder. She once hoped, she said, that the Swiss banks might have acted out of a belated sense of justice or moral outrage.

"I frankly don't think the Swiss have learned anything from this. I sense the younger generation feel some shame, but the older generation, not at all.

"They are bitter about this and I don't understand it. It's our money we are asking for, not charity."