Metro Views: An endeavor cloaked in sanctity

It's too bad that several of the figures who trailblazed Holocaust victims compensation efforts subsequently fell from grace.

A dozen years ago, Jews embarked on an emotional campaign to recover assets that had been looted in Europe during the Nazi era or denied to them after World War II. They sought dormant accounts in Swiss banks and payments from European insurers, as well as homes, businesses and other properties in Central and Eastern Europe. Although Jews had legal rights to many of these assets, at first this was seen largely as a moral campaign to recover Jewish properties. And it was waged with a large dose of "shaming," which can be a fairly effective strategy when used judiciously. European banks and enterprises were thought to be vulnerable to extensive publicity about their insensitivity to Holocaust survivors, such as asking for death certificates from Auschwitz in order to unlock secret Swiss accounts. UNFORTUNATELY, many of the prominent crusaders for Holocaust restitution themselves have been shamed and tarnished by allegations of legal or ethical misconduct. The most recent is Edward Fagan, a lawyer from New Jersey who in 1996 filed the first lawsuit in US federal court against Swiss banks for failure to return pre-war Jewish accounts. A report last month to the Ethics Committee of the New Jersey Supreme Court recommends that Fagan be disbarred for mishandling clients' funds, including those of Holocaust survivors. He is not the only attorney with legal problems. Melvyn Weiss, a prominent class-action lawyer in New York and generous Jewish donor, was indicted last year on federal charges including conspiracy, racketeering and obstruction of justice. According to published reports, Weiss and his law partners allegedly received millions of dollars in kickbacks from individuals who were paid to be plaintiffs in class-action lawsuits, giving the lawyers a competitive edge in filing claims. Avraham Hirschson, as an MK and the proud founder of the March of the Living, led the Israeli delegation to international conferences on Holocaust assets. In December 1998, he told a conference in Washington: "The struggle which we are waging is not only the determination of the Jewish people to recover its looted property - it is also a struggle for the very image and character of the world and its moral system." Yet almost a decade later, Hirschson lost his right to call anyone to a moral reckoning when he had to leave his position as finance minister because of allegations of embezzlement. IN NEW YORK, another finance official, Alan Hevesi, had wielded enormous power as the city comptroller. He also had assembled a national group of state and local finance officials and regulators to monitor how European companies met their obligations to restore Jewish assets. Hevesi could hurt financial institutions by threatening a boycott. When Deutsche Bank was preparing to acquire Manhattan-based Bankers Trust for $10 billion, for instance, Hevesi reportedly asked regulators to postpone their approval of the deal until Deutsche Bank resolved some Holocaust-era compensation claims. But Hevesi himself, who later became the New York State comptroller, was compelled to resign from office a year ago because of charges of using state employees to chauffeur his ailing wife. Hevesi was widely seen as taking his boycott cues from the World Jewish Congress, whose peripatetic secretary-general Israel Singer subsequently had his own explaining to do about transactions in a Swiss bank account, and was later fired by WJC head Edgar Bronfman on allegations of financial improprieties. Singer has denied the charges, but the damage was done. He had been so closely linked with Holocaust compensation that some people feared all future negotiations would be tainted by association. Chuck Quackenbush, California's insurance commissioner, was aggressively interested in recouping payments for Holocaust-era insurance policies before he was forced to resign in 2000. There was talk of impeachment for, in part, permitting California's largest insurers to avoid paying billions of dollars in fines. One of the most important early figures in uncovering the Swiss banks accounts was New York Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato. He convened hearings of the Senate Banking Committee at which Swiss bankers were compelled to explain their institutions' history and Holocaust survivors could tell their stories. Those hearings were essential in corralling government, corporate and media attention, thus elevating the issue by moving concern with dormant accounts in Swiss banks from the offices of the WJC to the Senate. D'Amato is not around, either. After three terms in the Senate, he lost his re-election bid in 1998. Some say the Catholic senator lost because he called his Jewish opponent, Congressman Charles Schumer, a "putzhead" during a meeting with Jewish supporters. D'Amato apologized, but no matter. That's the nature of Yiddish slang: it zings and often is unforgettable. THIS IS NOT to suggest that these self-appointed champions of Holocaust restitution were any more or less typical than other actors in their respective fields. After all, we are no longer surprised when a corruption scandal snags a political figure. And no one's behavior - alleged or real - damaged the actual Holocaust compensation agreements. With the exception of the ethics charges against Fagan, none of the alleged improprieties have anything to do with Holocaust compensation. And despite the massive publicity these men garnered, none were key players in the major compensation settlements; those agreements were handled by federal courts or federal governments. None of these personal and professional incidents would be more than curiosities or gossip, except that the efforts to recover Nazi-era assets are not finished. You have to wonder what kind of shadow they will cast, especially when many governments resist new claims and many survivors distrust the players, believing that they will be deceived or victimized. An endeavor cloaked in the sanctity of the Shoah and claims made on moral grounds call for advocates of the highest stature, not mere mortals who cannot stifle the urge to misbehave.