How Richard Shevitz put his class action
Class Action Cavalry
know-how to use for Holocaust victims
BY STEPH WEBER PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN BRAGG
IN 1995, 50 YEARS AFTER THE END OF WORLD WAR II, the U.S. government began
declassifying war-related documents. They revealed that some of the institutions in
Switzerland, a neutral country, had profited from questionable financial transactions
with the Nazis.
“When I say profited, I mean they profited from the harms inflicted on the victims of the
Holocaust,” says Richard Shevitz, a partner at Cohen & Malad in Indianapolis.
After the Nazis made it illegal for Jewish Germans to transfer money out of the country,
Swiss banks maintained that those same refugees could safely and discreetly deposit
their money with them. They promised the refugees anonymity under the umbrella of
Switzerland’s legendary numbered bank accounts.
Such promises resulted in a significant amount of money flooding into Swiss banks. Of
course, a large number of the depositors didn’t survive the war. “When their heirs made
attempts to recover the funds, the Swiss banks rebuffed them and essentially said, ‘We
don’t know what you’re talking about’ and held onto the money instead,” says Shevitz.
That was the experience of Estelle Sapir, one of the class representatives in the eventual
Swiss bank suit. When the war started, her father, Louis, deposited the family’s money into
a Swiss account. He died during the war, but Estelle survived, despite being placed in a
concentration camp. When she attempted to recover the funds in 1950, she was denied
access by the bank because she couldn’t produce her father’s death certificate. It was an
impossible request: The Nazis, of course, didn’t issue such documentation.
“As a young woman barely coming back on her feet from the tragedy, horror and
trauma of losing her family, she just left because she didn’t think she could take on the
system,” says Shevitz. “Estelle always said, ‘My father was able to protect our money
from the Nazis, he just couldn’t protect it from the Swiss.’”
In the wake of the declassified war documents, Sapir approached lawyers about taking
legal action. A class action suit was filed shortly thereafter, with Shevitz—who grew up around
Holocaust survivors living in Indianapolis and knew their stories well—and his firm becoming
one of several appointed to the executive committee. “We had begun to investigate the claims
of local Holocaust survivors,” he says. “When we learned that lawyers were initiating class
action litigation against Swiss banks on the East Coast, we joined forces with them.”