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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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Novel draws on Swiss bank account controversy

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Robert Landori

The battle led by World Jewish Congress (WJC) in the 1990s to retrieve unclaimed deposits in Swiss banks made by those fearing Nazi persecution is the inspiration for a forthcoming novel by Montreal-based Robert Landori.

This will be the seventh international thriller by Landori, whose most recent book was Havana Harvest (Emerald Books, 2010), which he describes as semi-historical. Set in the late 1980s, this meticulously plotted tale is premised on the revelation that the Cubans were trafficking drugs and laundering money to finance military aid to leftist revolutions on different continents.

Landori had personal reasons for exposing the Castro regime as unscrupulous. In 1968, Landori spent 66 days in solitary confinement in a Cuban prison on accusations of espionage. For almost a decade before that, he had been doing business in the country freely. The charges were dropped after Ottawa intervened.

The idea for the latest novel came after the WJC lawsuit over the dormant numbered accounts. The U.S. government was drawn into it when the Swiss bankers and government balked at the amount claimed by WJC. The result was a $1.25-billion settlement in 1998 to compensate Holocaust survivors and their heirs.

Landori again has personal reasons for writing this novel, Four Equations.

Born in Budapest in 1934, he is old enough to remember World War II and the Nazi occupation of Hungary from March 1944 to January 1945. He witnessed the murders of Jews beside the Danube River.

“One day, the Arrow Cross [the collaborating Hungarian fascists] came into our classroom and ordered the boys to drop their pants. Six were taken away, five Jews and a Muslim. They were never heard from again,” Landori said in an interview.

Troubled for decades by these memories, Landori, a Roman Catholic by upbringing, paid special attention to the unfolding of the Swiss accounts controversy. He lived in Switzerland for two years as a high school student, and was acquainted with then-WJC president Edgar Bronfman.

A chartered accountant with an insider’s knowledge of international money matters, Landori was struck by the injustice of these secretive banks being enriched by the assets desperate people, mostly Jews from different parts of Europe, had entrusted to a country that vaunted its neutrality and the integrity of its financial institutions.

It’s clear to Landori that the banks did not take on these foreign clients out of the goodness of their hearts. “In 1947, people talked freely about how much money flowed into Switzerland from Jews and others, including the Nazis themselves,” he said.

By the 1990s, those deposits had reached the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars, unclaimed because those who opened the accounts had not survived, or their descendants did not know how to access them or even that they existed.

Landori credits his friend, Hungarian-born pioneering Canadian film producer Andre Link, founder of Cinépix (later Lionsgate), with some ideas for the literary embellishments in Four Equations. Link, who is Jewish, was confined to the Budapest ghetto during the war.

Four Equations (The CJN was given an advance copy) imagines one such depositor, Hungarian Jewish physicist Peter Gombos, who wins the Nobel Prize in 1936. On the advice of a non-Jewish Swiss colleague, who warns him that even an eminent person like himself will be a Nazi target, Gombos opens a numbered account with a private Swiss bank to keep safe his prize money.

To circumvent the regulation that inactive accounts would be closed after 20 years, Gombos leaves a standing order that a negligible sum be transferred annually in a circular fashion between this account and those at two other banks where he opens anonymous accounts.

Gombos dies accidentally in 1944. His wife and two young sons are later murdered, and their few remaining immediate relatives also perish – or so it is thought.

Before that, Gombos has his wife, an artist, paint a portrait of him and the boys. He is seen writing on a blackboard four equations (hence the title), which he is confident that, in the event of his death, his family will be able to decipher as the passwords to the accounts.

Years later, the picture is acquired at a Budapest auction by an American who intuits that the equations are clues to a hidden fortune.

Fast forward to this century and the tax haven Cayman Islands where a young American CA, scion of a prominent Irish-American family, arrives to oversee the liquidation of a bankrupt bank.

One huge account keeps growing, but where the money is coming from is a mystery. Jack Brennan traces it to a foundation set up by a Swiss bank, which is profiting handsomely from its investments.

Thus begins Brennan’s hunt through Hungary (the birthplace of his grandmother) and Switzerland for the original prewar depositor, a search made all the more dramatic because of the looming bankruptcy of the bank due to Wall Street’s financial meltdown, and a takeover bid by another Swiss bank.

In typical Landori style, the book has a large cast of characters, both noble and ignoble, and romance, high and low. There’s also a rogue banker who makes a fraudulent claim to the fortune through the Jewish prostitute he patronizes. 

There’s a surprise twist that leads to an ending in which justice prevails.

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