Irwin Levin holds Swiss banks accountable for Holocaust restitution
Published in 2005 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine
on December 1, 2005
Updated on December 1, 2016
Indianapolis Holocaust survivor Mike Blain has high praise for attorney Irwin Levin’s dedication to seeking justice. Blain is a direct beneficiary of Levin’s several-year legal battle with a consortium of Swiss banks, which allegedly controlled valuables and assets stolen from Holocaust victims by Nazis. In 2000, the banks made restitution to Holocaust victims, survivors or their heirs in the amount of $1.25 billion.
Blain has received settlement checks totaling $8,000. “Money can’t compensate for what happened to my family,” says Blain. “But I’m a lucky man. When I was 14 years old, I moved to Budapest to learn the leather crafting trade so I wasn’t home when they rounded up my family. My entire family was wiped out and murdered at Auschwitz. I escaped from the Budapest Ghetto but got caught and sentenced to a child labor camp. Then I got lucky again,” he says. “I was rescued by some Jewish boys in the Underground who guided me to safety where I was liberated by the Russian Army.” The Hungarian-born Blain is lucky to be alive. During the Holocaust, some 550,000 Hungarian Jews and tens of thousands of Gypsies were killed.
It is over the valuables of Holocaust victims that a series of lawsuits were set into motion. Irwin Levin, managing partner of Cohen & Malad, was one of the chosen people to serve on the executive committee in the prosecution of a worldwide class action lawsuit to recover assets from the Nazi era. The defendants were three Swiss banks: Credit Suisse, Union Bank of Switzerland and Swiss Bank Corporation. USB AG became the successor of Union Bank of Switzerland and Swiss Bank Corporation. Oscar Schindler had his list. Irwin B. Levin has his own — metaphorically speaking — the goods and valuables stolen from Nazi victims.
“Here’s the story on how we got involved,” says the 51-year-old Levin. “We have a law in the United States that says that the U.S. government can keep documents classified for 50 years. World War II ended in 1945, so in 1995 the archives became accessible.” Some Indianapolis Holocaust survivors heard about those documents and contacted Levin. He then called an attorney litigating a similar case in New York and asked to participate with him.
That call resulted in a U.S. District Court judge appointing Levin to a 10-lawyer executive committee to manage the litigation, which was filed in 1996. For four years, Levin logged hundreds of thousands of frequent flier miles between New York City, Washington, D.C., Germany, Israel and Switzerland.
“It was a pressure cooker,” exclaims Levin, rolling his eyes. “Our team was a very focused, all-star cast of accomplished lawyers so there was a lot of tension on our side, trying to decide what strategy was best. The litigation was new and creative. There was no road map for how to do this. And diplomatic pressures were brought to bear.”
Initially, the Swiss moved to dismiss the case, filing a 1,000-page motion. When U.S. State Department diplomatic negotiations failed, the judge, Edward Korman, offered to participate in reaching a resolution if the parties agreed. He hosted a dinner for the lawyers at the Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn, N.Y. While breaking bread, the impasse was broken when the quiet, patient judge announced, “This case should settle for $1.25 billion.” And it was.
“We agonized over that figure, but ultimately, we decided that it was a fair sum if we could resolve the case,” says Levin. “It wasn’t enough money but we had another problem. At the time that we settled, the average age of a Holocaust survivor was 80 years old. Every month, we lost one percent of our class. It would have been a Pyrrhic victory to litigate the case for another 10 years.
“The Swiss settled for economic and political reasons only,” Levin continues. “They did not settle for any altruistic reason or because it was the right thing to do. They did not settle because they had compassion for the victims. Oh, no, they settled because politically and economically, the ramifications were just too great if they didn’t.
“Once the case was settled, we spent $25 million giving notice around the world, “ he says. “The majority of Holocaust survivors do not live in the United States. So, it got interesting in places like the former Soviet Union where we had to be very careful. The an-nouncement that survivors were getting money put their lives in danger. Because people would steal their checks or kill them for the money, we had to work through organizations to get them their money.”
Public hearings regarding the settlement produced mixed results in Israel. While some survivors criticized the amount as being too little, others said that asking for money cheapened the memory of the Holocaust. Levin disagrees. “That’s illogical,” he says. “The Nazis stole money from people that they killed. Getting your family’s money back does not cheapen you.”
According to Levin, there was no average payout to the hundreds of thousands of people in the class-action suit. Some account holders received hundreds of thousands of dollars while others received a couple of thousand dollars, roughly based on the amount the Nazis had taken from their families. As for Levin and the other nine lawyers, they only got paid for the hours they put in. “We worked for three years not knowing if we would get paid at all,” he says.
Levin has also been active in other Holocaust cases. One of those cases involved recovering the value of slave labor performed in local factories. In this case, a $5.2 billion settlement was negotiated by the United States and Germany. German companies including BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Deutsche Bank, Siemens and Volkswagen joined the German government in contributing to the fund. The settlement affected approximately 240,000 former slave laborers from concentration camps, many of whom now live in the United States, and more than 2 million former forced laborers, who live primarily in Eastern Europe.
In another part of the $5.2 billion settlement, Levin gave the makers of Bayer Aspirin, Bayer AG, a splitting headache when he took action against the pharmaceutical giant for participating in medical experiments on concentration camp inmates. Two of these victims were Terre Haute resident Eva Mozes Kor and her identical twin, Miriam. The women were subjected to genetic experiments conducted by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in the Auschwitz death camp. Likely as a result of Mengele’s medical experiments and injections, Miriam’s kidneys never fully developed and she died in 1993 of a rare form of cancer.
In spite of her own serious health problems, Eva founded The CANDLES Museum (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) in 1995 in Terre Haute. The museum is being rebuilt through donations after being destroyed by an arsonist who torched the building and spray-painted the outside with the words, “Remember Timmy McVeigh.”
Levin’s law firm donated $10,000 to Kor’s cause. “Irwin Levin is very focused, action-oriented and knowledgeable about German restitution,” says Kor. “Most of the survivors were not Jewish. They were Polish.”
Action, particularly on behalf of the oppressed, has always been a part of Levin’s life. He is the oldest of five children born to homemaker Mae Schuchman Levin and Gold Seal Pest Control owner Maurice Levin. Raised in a mainstream, conservative Jewish family south of Broad Ripple, Levin had his bar mitzvah at Beth-el Zedeck synagogue. As Mae became even more involved in her children’s religious education, the Zionistic family became members of the Orthodox B’nai Torah Synagogue. In her 50s she became the first female president of an Orthodox synagogue in America.
Irwin became one of 38 students in his class at Yeshiva High School in Skokie, Ill. and went on to attend Bar-Ilan University outside of Tel Aviv, Israel. Levin didn’t appreciate the scheduling of an early-morning philosophy class and decided to come home to attend Indiana University – Purdue University in Indianapolis when he wasn’t working. “My father said, ‘Now that you’re home, you can work for me.’ So instead of having an 8:00 class, I had a 7:30 a.m. pest control route,” laughs Levin.
Despite working fulltime and going to class fulltime, he graduated cum laude in 1974 with a BA in political science. He was 19 years old and a sophomore in college when he married for the first time. His daughter, Lindsay, is now a grad student, living in San Francisco. Levin remarried at 31. Now divorced, he has joint custody of two sons, Cory and Josh.
Levin worked as a bailiff in Judge J. Patrick Ensley’s Marion County Circuit Court before graduating from the Indiana University School of Law in 1978. That’s where he caught the attention of Ron Heath of Hoover Hull Baker & Heath. “You could tell that he was going to be an excellent lawyer,” recalls Heath. “Even then, he demonstrated a charisma and charm that few young people had.” Heath says that Levin has just gotten better with age. “He’s very smart, savvy, innovating and imaginative. He’s a lawyer’s lawyer.”
For one year, Levin served as commissioner of the Marion County Circuit Court before joining his present firm, which was then called Dillon, Hardamon & Cohen.
In 1998, the Indiana Trial Lawyer Association awarded him its highest honor, the Hoosier Freedom Award. But Levin considers his work for Holocaust victims as the pinnacle of his career. “No matter what happens next, my obituary will probably focus on that,” he says.