07/16/2012 09:20 am ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

Descendants Of Matyas Fischer, Holocaust Victim, Sue European Banks For Allegedly Stealing Millions

A recent lawsuit claims that three major European banks have stolen millions from a Holocaust victim and his descendants.

The descendants of Matyas Fischer, a former bank owner who died in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, sued Erste Group, the Bavarian State Bank and the Hungarian National Bank in federal district court on July 5 for allegedly hoarding millions of dollars that belong to them, according to the complaint.

The Fischer family claims that the banks owe them at least $38 million for unreturned assets that include gold coins, foreign currency and diamonds worth an estimated $18 million, as well as bank deposits, cash, art, jewelry, records, securities and mortgaged buildings and properties. The Fischers accuse the banks of unjustly enriching themselves, violating international law and aiding genocide.

Since World War II, many banks have been restructured to form bigger banks. When accounting for mergers and acquisitions, these three banks now are responsible for the Fischer family's assets, Kenneth McCallion, the Fischer family's lawyer, told The Huffington Post.

The Fischer family also alleges that the banks contributed to the deaths of some Holocaust victims, including Matyas Fischer himself. The Fischer family's complaint claims that since the banks collaborated with the Nazis and the Hungarian occupying forces and prevented their Jewish customers from accessing their assets, Hungarian Jews were trapped and could not escape from getting sent to death camps. McCallion said that once Matyas Fischer's assets were stolen, "the family was impoverished and unable to really flee."

Matyas Fischer was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and died of starvation in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland in 1945.

Fischer, who lived in Serbia, which at the time was part of Yugoslavia, started, owned and managed his own bank, the Peterreve Hitelbank. He inherited farmland from his family and received a large dowry from his wife's family. But Hungary, an ally of Nazi Germany, conquered Yugoslavia in 1941. Hungarian authorities then took his bank away and put a non-Jewish manager in charge, according to McCallion.

A month after Fischer was sent to Auschwitz, Fischer's wife and children were placed on the train to Auschwitz, according to Paul Fischer, 76, Matyas' youngest son. Paul Fischer, a former economics professor and car part manufacturer who lives in Brooklyn, is the lawsuit's lead plaintiff. But during that train ride, the wife and children were allowed to leave and instead sent to a labor camp in Austria that was "paradise" in comparison, Fischer said. They survived the Holocaust.

After World War II ended and Matyas Fischer's wife and children returned to Serbia, they never recovered Matyas Fischer's assets. The banks claimed they no longer had Fischer's assets and suggested that Nazi authorities had seized them, according to McCallion. McCallion said he believes that the banks simply stole Fischer's assets under the assumption that Jewish families were not coming back.

"The property was looted, and we feel it was unlawfully taken," Paul Fischer said. "Why shouldn't the children have it and benefit from it?"

Fischer said that now, he finally has the documentation to prove his case. He said he decided to start researching the issue 10 years ago because he did not want his dad to ask him after he died: "Why didn't you look for me?"

For its part, Erste Group denies responsibility for the Fischer family's assets. "Neither Erste Group Bank nor its Hungarian subsidiary bank, which was founded only decades after the end of World War II, view themselves as legal successors to any of the banks mentioned in the complaint," said Zsofia Banuta, a press officer for Erste Group, in a statement on Monday, adding that Erste Group has not yet been served with the complaint.

The Bavarian State Bank and the Hungarian National Bank declined to comment on the lawsuit, with the Hungarian National Bank also noting it has yet to be served with the complaint.

The Fischers filed the lawsuit after withdrawing from a class action suit against the European banks Erste Group, the Hungarian National Bank, OTP Bank, Credit Anstalt and the Bavarian State Bank, representing other Holocaust victims. Paul Fischer said they withdrew from the class action lawsuit because they have more documentation and are owed a substantial amount of money. The class action lawsuit prevailed in a district court, but after an appeal by the banks, it is pending a decision from a federal appeals court in Chicago, according to Robert Pavich, the lead attorney for the class action lawsuit.

It may take a while for federal courts to reach a decision on either the class action lawsuit or the Fischer family's lawsuit, Pavich said. That is because the Supreme Court will rule on the case Kiobel vs. Shell, most likely this fall. Kavich and McCallion said that the Supreme Court could choose to rule that non-U.S. citizens are not allowed to sue corporations in U.S. court for violating international law outside the U.S. Some of Matyas Fischer's descendants, who are plaintiffs in the Fischer family case, are not U.S. citizens.

A similar class action lawsuit, representing the 437,000 victims of the Hungarian Holocaust and their families against the Hungarian State Railways, claims that "although the Hungarian genocide was the single most extensive and brutal of all the Nazi genocides of World War II ... not even one percent of the Hungarian victims’ financial losses has been restituted."

"This is in sharp contrast to other Holocaust reparations initiatives that have been successfully prosecuted against other states and their instrumentalities," the class action lawsuit continued. "But in the case of Hungary, its agencies and instrumentalities so far have stalled, stonewalled, stridently misled, and falsely denied their role as profiteers from the Hungarian Holocaust."

The families of Holocaust victims have prevailed in cases similar to the Fischer family's lawsuit, according to McCallion. He listed three examples. In Bodner v. Banque Paribas in 2000, the federal district court in New York denied the French banks' attempt to dismiss the lawsuit, which alleged that French banks had failed to restitute assets that they had stolen from Jewish customers and their descendants. In another lawsuit in 2000, the federal district court in New York approved a settlement in which Swiss banks agreed to pay $1.25 billion to the descendants of Jews whose assets they allegedly stole. The Federal District Court in New York also approved a settlement in 2000 in which Bank Austria and Credit Anstalt agreed to pay $40 million to the descendants of Jews whose assets they allegedly stole.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Matyas Fischer died of starvation in a Polish concentration camp in 1945. Fischer died in a concentration camp in Poland.