Restaurateur joins fight against Swiss banks

March 10, 1997


Staff Writer, Waynesboro

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Calling it a "financial Holocaust," Mercersburg businessman Catalin Bonciu is joining thousands of Jewish people around the world in an international lawsuit against Swiss banks to retrieve what they say belongs to them.

Armed with a pile of documents, Bonciu, 43, owner of James Buchanan Pub and Restaurant, has become absorbed in his family's battle against several Swiss banks.

A Washington, D.C., law firm, representing Bonciu and others, is seeking punitive damages from the Swiss banks, Bonciu said.

He claims the banks have destroyed valuable information about numerous bank accounts opened by his uncle in 1939.

Bonciu and others also claim the banks are holding valuable family heirlooms funneled to the banks by Nazi troops who seized the goods during raids of his home country of Romania during the war.


"It's not about the money," Bonciu said in a thick Romanian accent. "For us, it's a bitter issue. It's about truth - no more, no less."

Under pressure from several Jewish groups, Switzerland is researching its past to determine the extent of its dealings with Nazi Germany.

The only child of a wealthy, hard-working Jewish family, Bonciu escaped to Greece from Romania in 1981, then a Communist country, and then to the United States.

He took up the fight against the banks in 1986 when his mother gave him several of his uncle's documents, including a notebook that contained several encoded financial transactions to Swiss bank accounts and safety deposit boxes.

His uncle, David John Stanley Goldberg, had tried repeatedly to claim his vast holdings after the war up until his death in 1975, Bonciu said.

The process of retrieving his family's money and belongings began for Bonciu during a trip to Switzerland in 1986.

Though he was able to gain access to one of his uncle's safety deposit boxes, which included an envelope with money and paperwork leading him to the other holdings, he was stopped there.

Inquiries into the other bank accounts - one believed to contain about 17 million Swiss francs or about $11.4 million in current U.S. dollars - and safety deposit boxes, were met with opposition from Swiss bank officials, Bonciu said.

He was told that the contents in one safety deposit box were destroyed in 1978 and that the others don't exist.

Bank officials started asking Bonciu for original documents and required they be notarized before he could make a claim, efforts which cost Bonciu thousands of dollars.

"Very few people understand what power the Swiss banks have," he said.

The task has been financially and emotionally draining for Bonciu, who in his efforts to learn more about his family's financial situation has dredged up horror stories from the war.

"It's not a joy to get this money," Bonciu said. "I am so bitter. It's horrible the amount of money the Swiss banks have stolen through the blood and torture of people."

Stonewalled by the banks, Bonciu gave up the effort in 1990, but continued a year later because he said he "couldn't let it rest."

Since then, Bonciu has waged a letter writing campaign to the banks, few of which have been answered.

In response to one letter Bonciu wrote to Credit Suisse in Lugano on Jan. 6, bank officials wrote back stating that Swiss Law prohibits them from giving information on a deceased customer's account unless they have documented proof of the customer's death.

On Feb. 18, officials at Credit Suisse in Zurich wrote Bonciu stating, "We inform you that we do not hold any assets in the above mentioned names with our Head office in Zurich.

"This is also true for our branches in Switzerland as far as we are able to ascertain it from our files."

The letter goes on to say that since the banks are only required to keep records and correspondence for 10 years, they cannot confirm whether they held assets in the names of Bonciu's relatives.

"They stripped the people . . . We're supposed to take this kind of abuse from the Swiss?" Bonciu asked.

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