GIZELLA WEISSHAUS REMEMBERS vividly her last glimpse of her father. It was in March 1944. With a German guard waiting to take him away, Eugene Stern, who had been a prosperous currency dealer until seized by the Nazis, gathered his seven children around him in the single room that had become their home in the Jewish ghetto of Sighet, Rumania. “He said he didn’t know what was going to happen,” Weisshaus, 67, recalls of her father’s whispered message, “but we should know that he had hidden money in the house and that he had money in a Swiss bank.” The next day Nazi soldiers loaded Weisshaus, her mother and siblings, and hundreds of Sighet’s other Jews onto cattle cars bound for Auschwitz.
Miraculously, Weisshaus emerged alive from the death camp)—the only one of 55 relatives to survive the Holocaust. And she never forgot the words of her father. Three times over the years she journeyed to Switzerland in search of his money—initially some $50,000, she says. Each time she left disappointed, rejected by bankers who claimed they could do nothing to help, since she could produce no proof of an account. Now Weisshaus finds herself at the center of a heated dispute that challenges the very integrity of the world’s foremost banking nation. In October, hoping to reclaim her father’s money, she filed a $20 billion suit against five Swiss banks, trying to force them to open their books. Since then she has been joined in a class action by more than 10,000 plaintiffs, all Holocaust victims and their relatives, seeking money that has eluded them for decades. “Germany thought they were going to kill us out and nothing would be left to prove we were there,” says Weisshaus. “This lawsuit is a way to get justice.”
For most of her adult life, Weisshaus, mother of six and grandmother of 27, has lived quietly with her husband Joseph, 73—also a Holocaust survivor—in a Brooklyn neighborhood, surrounded by fellow members of the ultraorthodox Satmar Hasidim, She has no TV, sews her own clothing, and spends much of her time in the family’s walk-up apartment, cooking and baking for her husband and their youngest son, Akiva, who still lives at home.
That quiet domestic routine was interrupted last year after she learned that the Swiss government—pressured by the U.S. and international Jewish groups—planned to relax its bank secrecy laws to help identify unclaimed accounts set up by Jews and others early in World War II. But when she read in September that a Swiss investigation might take five years, she was angry. “That really got me,” says Weisshaus, who says many survivors would die before the investigation’s end. “They try to play for time, but by the time it ends, nobody will be alive.”
The suit seeks to force the banks to open records from 1933 to 1945. So far the banks report finding 775 accounts containing nearly $32 million that may have belonged to European Jews and others who disappeared during the war. Some U.S. Jewish groups claim the banks are holding as much as $7 billion. Last month a Zurich bank guard exposed the Union Bank of Switzerland’s attempt to shred reams of war-era records. (The bank claimed they were unrelated to the Holocaust accounts.)
For Weisshaus the lawsuit has brought back memories of her parents and all that was lost in the war. “We had a big house, with a big garden and many-fruit trees,” she recalls. Perhaps that was why, when the Nazis took over Rumania in 1944, her father was one of the first arrested. “They just came and took the wealthy people out,” she says.
Arriving at Auschwitz that year, Gizella was separated from her family. “My mother, she was begging the man to let me go with her,” she says. But he refused, and while the rest of the family went to the gas chambers, Gizella was sent to Birkenau, where she worked as a slave laborer until the end of the war. In January 1945 Russian soldiers liberated the camp, and Gizella, then 15 and suffering from malnutrition, returned alone to Sighet, only to wait a year in vain for her family. “It was such a shock that they could kill everybody,” she says. Sneaking into her home, then occupied by Russian soldiers, she located her father’s legacy—the $1,500 he had stashed in hidden beams, as well as his gold watch, which she still owns.
Through a matchmaker in a nearby city she met Joseph, with whom she emigrated in 1950 to New York, where they ran a successful business manufacturing fabric trim. Now, Gizella is so consumed by her case that she carries an electronic pager so her lawyer can keep in touch. “My housework isn’t kept up,” she admits. “It is very hectic.” If the money does come, she hopes to establish a school for children with special needs. One of her grandchildren, Abraham, 8, is autistic. “They tell me it is a big thing to even think,” she says of the plan. “But I am not afraid.”
LISA KAY GREISSINGER in New York City