A few years ago, the family of a European Jew named Hans Leipziger was given a check for 150,000 Swiss francs to compensate for a bank account that Leipziger held before the Nazis came to power.
It was a nice ending to an old story, except for one problem: The check appears to have gone to the family of a different Hans Leipziger than the one who actually owned the account before the end of the war.
The apparently misdirected award was made by the Claims Resolution Tribunal, a body set up to administer the $1.25 billion that Swiss banks agreed to pay for the thousands of Jewish-owned accounts that were frozen during the Nazi era.
Since the tribunal made the Leipziger award, the family of the Hans Leipziger who did not receive the money has waged a strenuous campaign to win it back. In an eight-page letter to the director of the Swiss bank tribunal, a distant cousin of Leipziger’s, Arnon Dauber, wrote: “The end result is we have a situation in which a person was awarded an unjustified award. An award regarding someone he is not related to. Nothing you will say or do can justify or excuse this unacceptable situation.”
The man overseeing the tribunal, Michael Bradfield, has acknowledged that the money was likely given to the family of the wrong Hans Leipziger, but the award has not been withdrawn. The primary reason is that the first family applied before the court-ordered deadline, while the second family did not. Bradfield has said that the mistaken recipient family received the award in “good faith,” if not with good information.
The Hans Leipziger account is one of 17,288 that have been paid out since the Swiss bank settlement was signed in 1998. The checks written to the families have made for many feel-good stories. But as in any large financial distribution, there also have been many difficult and messy decisions in the attempt to enact justice 70 years after the fact. The Leipziger case is a clear example of those difficulties.
“We were under great pressure to make decisions before survivors died,” Bradfield said. “I’d like a little sympathy for the people who have to make these decisions.”
Overall, the tribunal was contending with some 57,000 applications seeking restitution of bank accounts. There was $800 million was set aside to repay frozen bank accounts, and so far $446 million has been returned (another $450 million has gone to fund social welfare programs and to pay reparations to slave laborers). Bradfield said that some of the rejected applications for awards came from families that could not tell whether a name on the list of account holders was their relative, and so they decided to take a shot at putting in for some of the Swiss payout.
But there also have been cases of outright fraud. In almost a dozen instances, Bradfield’s tribunal has demanded that families return money — sometimes in the neighborhood of $1 million.
“Most of these were cases in which the family members were playing fast and loose,” Bradfield said. In one such case, a newly surfaced will revealed that one part of a family had not acknowledged that there were other family members closer to the Swiss bank account holder.
Then there were the other, apparently more ambiguous cases.
The Leipziger account first came to light in 2001 when the Swiss banks — after much reluctance and prodding — published a list of 21,000 accounts that were frozen during the Nazi era. On the list was “Leipziger, Hans [Luxembourg, Luxembourg].” The power of attorney was listed as his wife, “Leipziger, Frau Erna Doris (AKA Schloss, Frl. Erna Doris).”
An application for the account came in soon thereafter, before the summer 2002 deadline. While the name of this applicant has not been published, it is known that he presented documents about a Hans Leipziger who was born in 1905 and died in the Gross-Rosen concentration camp during the war. Documents that the applicant provided from the Gross-Rosen archives suggested that when the rest of the family was transferred to other camps in 1944, Hans was left to perish in Gross-Rosen.
The application did not contain much other identifying information regarding the account, such as the background or whereabouts of Leipziger’s wife, Erna. But when the court-determined deadline rolled around, the application was deemed the most convincing claim on the Leipziger account and a check was cut.
The situation changed almost immediately after the award was handed out, when the tribunal began receiving Arnon Dauber’s letters. Dauber presented a growing body of evidence about Hans Leipziger, including all the details that the first application was missing.
Dauber had identification cards from Luxembourg for both Hans and his wife. This Hans Leipziger was born in 1905, survived the war and lived until 1998. He died in New York. Dauber had the forms from the Social Security Administration showing that Hans and Erna changed their last name to Leir when they came to America in 1940. Dauber even had a letter that Leir sent to his grandmother. The letter discussed the family and ended with a signature that matched the one on the Swiss accounts.
“Thank you for your report on the family,” Hans wrote in the letter, which was composed on his personal stationery in 1983. “Enclosed is a little belated Chanuka gift.”
In fact, Dauber’s grandmother had been awarded the account of another Leipziger cousin during the initial application process.
“We provided the court not with 100% proof but a million percent proof,” Dauber told the Forward.
Bradfield did not ignore the new information. He corresponded with Dauber and also contacted the original recipient of the award. Bradfield told the Forward that after his conversations, he concluded that the original awardee had inadvertently and innocently identified the wrong Hans Leipziger.
“He may have had the wrong person, but he wasn’t trying to cheat anybody,” Bradfield said. “I think it’s a tough judgment to make — to say, ‘We’re not going to let you keep that money.’”
Bradfield said that the decision was made easier because Dauber had not submitted the application for the other Hans Leipziger on time. In another interesting twist, Bradfield said that the information provided by Dauber shows that Leipziger’s account would not have been returned, because Leipziger left Luxembourg before the Nazis invaded.
The latter point has infuriated Dauber; he has found other instances in which families that left Luxembourg at the same time were given awards. But Dauber acknowledges that he made a mistake on the deadlines. In fact, Dauber applied for numerous accounts on behalf of his grandmother before the deadline, and he recovered funds from the accounts held by his great-grandparents.
In his letters to Bradfield, Dauber strikes a dogged and angry tone, insisting that he has not given up the fight for the funds. He has done enough research to find cases in which Bradfield gave awards to other families that applied late, as well as cases in which the tribunal gave two awards after making erroneous awards the first time around. This has all been the subject of numerous vitriolic letters from Dauber. In the most recent one, delivered last week, Dauber accused Bradfield of ignoring fraud.
“You are clearly waging an unjustified, unnecessary battle against our family, when only your ego and the fraudulent claimant stand to win,” Dauber wrote in his May 25 letter.
The judge overseeing the case has upheld the tribunal’s decision, pointing to Dauber’s late application and to the relatively distant relation between Dauber and Leipziger. Speaking this week, Bradfield expressed sympathy for Dauber.
“I understand his fury at feeling that he’s identified the right person and that’s not being honored,” Bradfield said. “But he’s not taking account of all the things that we have to take account of.”