Banks Accused of Looting Holocaust Victim

Courthouse News Service 11 July 2012

BROOKLYN (CN) - Descendants of a Holocaust victim claim in Federal Court that Hungarian, Austrian and German banks refuse to return millions of dollars in money, art and valuables put into safe deposit boxes before the war.

The Fischer family, descendants of Matyas Fischer, a bank owner who died in a concentration camp, claim the defendant banks refuse to return more than $18 million in diamonds, gold and other assets from their father's accounts.

Lead plaintiff Paul Chaim Shlomo Fischer and five other Fischers sued Erste Group Bank AG aka Erest Bank der Oesterreichischen Sparkassen; Erste Bank Oesterreich of Erste Bank Austria; Bayerische Landesbank aka the Bavarian State Bank; and Magyar Nemeti Bank.

The Fischers accuse the banks of violating international law, aiding and abetting genocide, unjust enrichment and conversion.

Matyas Fischer owned and managed the Peterreve Hitelbank in Peterreve, then part of Austro-Hungary, now part of Serbia, according to the complaint.

"Following the Hungarian occupation, plaintiffs' father was removed as manager of his bank in May 1941 when the Hungarian anti-Semitic laws began to be enforced in positions," the complaint states. "A non-Jewish 'aladar' straw man was placed in his stead, which was typical throughout Trianon Hungary since 1939. Plaintiffs' father's other business activities were also severely curtailed, as he could not lease his land or export his crops, and was prohibited from traveling abroad. His resources and income were thus sharply diminished, and at the onset of the winter of 1942, it was extremely difficult for plaintiffs' father to access his accounts in Ujvidek due to the constant danger there to Jews.

"Plaintiffs' father also had a safe deposit box containing foreign currency, gold and diamonds in safe at the Pesti Hazai Elso Takarekpenztar Bank in Budapest, which is now part of defendant Erste Group Bank. The dimensions of the safe were 50 x 25 x 15 cm, and mostly contained diamonds and gold coins, with a value of $18 million USD.

"Plaintiffs' father had decided during the 1930s that, due to the economic instability and currency restrictions following the 1929 stock market crash and Depression, to convert most of his cash into diamonds, gold and other valuables. Upon information and belief, after plaintiffs' father was deported in 1944, custody of the safe deposit box that plaintiffs' father had maintained at the Pesti Hazai Elso Takarekpenztar Bank in Budapest was transferred to the Pesti Magyar Kereskedelmi Bank, which later became the Bayerische Landesbank Muchen, now part of defendant Bayeriscbe Landesbank aIkIa BayernLB or Bavarian State Bank and/or its subsidiary, MKB Bank Zrt."

The lead plaintiff, now a U.S. citizen living in Brooklyn, was born in Peterreve, then Yugoslavia, in 1936. His brother, also a son of Matyas Fischer, also is a U.S. citizen living in Brooklyn. Two of Matyas' sons/plaintiffs are citizens of Israel, and the final two plaintiffs are a son and daughter of Matyas' other sons, whose residences are not described in the complaint.

The family claims: "The named defendants or their predecessors were all doing business in Hungary in 1944, and they served as the economic arm of the Hungarian Holocaust by stripping the Jewish population of their banking assets and thus depriving them of the means to flee and seek safety elsewhere. The defendant banks thus aided and abetted the Greater Hungary political arm that actually ordered and physically carried out the vast deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. The defendant banks also engaged in a conspiracy to hide the assets that had been stolen from the Jewish population, including the Fischer family.

"This conspiracy by the defendant banks to hide and withhold information regarding the expoliated [sic] assets continues to the present day, and the defendant banks continue to be the custodians of the assets that were entrusted to them by Jewish customers, which was wrongfully taken from them in breach of the banks' fiduciary duties."

They add: "Plaintiffs have been unable to determine the precise amount of the assets seized by the defendant banks, due primarily to the fact that defendants have hidden their records, denied that they have records relating the Fischer family claims, asserted privileges under various Hungarian secrets legislation and regulations, and shuffled the assets among themselves in a series of bank takeovers, mergers, assignments, and consolidations. However, plaintiffs conservatively estimate their claims against the defendant banks, including the value of the bank accounts, contents of safe deposit boxes, loss of a mortgaged building, lost salary, pension and other employment benefits, at $38 million USD. ...

"The plaintiffs, who are making claims for reparations in their capacity as heirs of their father, a Holocaust victim, were provided false information about the banks' violations and invasions of trust and custodial property, thus concealing from plaintiffs their right to know if they had inherited any assets. Since any alleged delay in bringing this action may be attributed to the fact that the information that plaintiffs sought was concealed and/or falsified by the defendants, the defendants should be equitably estopped from raising a statute of limitations defense.

"Among other things, defendants failed to conduct thorough searches for blocked bank accounts, sealed safe deposit boxes, or titles to property entrusted to defendants for safekeeping, and, in certain cases, falsely represented to plaintiffs that they had done so and that the result of their searches was negative. The defendant banks also represented to plaintiffs in certain instances that their banking assets had been taken by the German or Communist authorities when, in fact, such was not the case. For these reasons as well, defendant banks should be equitably estopped from raising a statute of limitations defense."

The family seeks an accounting, a constructive trust, the return of "all looted assets," and punitive damages.

They are represented by Kenneth McCallion, of New York City.
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