The Swiss banks’ shameful stonewalling for decades of the restitution of the dormant accounts of Holocaust victims and survivors to the rightful heirs is the subject of a new novel by Montreal-based Robert Landori.
Four Equations is the seventh international thriller by Landori, best known for Havana Harvest and Mayhem on the Danube.
This intricate fiction, set mainly during the 2008 world financial crisis, revolves around the unsuspecting and unlikely heir of a Hungarian Jew killed accidentally in 1944 and an inter-continental race to claim what turns out to be a massive amount from Swiss bankers who are not only intransigent, but unscrupulous.
As in the past, the Hungarian-born Landori, a public accountant by profession who worked abroad for much of his career, draws on “the secretive environment of commercial chicanery and double-dealing” to which he was witness.
That was insignificant compared to the magnitude of the Swiss banks scandal. After a protracted legal battle, World Jewish Congress won a $1.24 billion (US) settlement in 1998 to compensate the descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors, since deceased, who had entrusted their assets to neutral Switzerland during the Nazi era. By 2013, that sum had been paid out.
Private banks created the famous anonymous numbered accounts largely in response to this flood of foreign deposits.
This controversy resonated with Landori, and not only because of its intrigue. He has personal reasons for writing this novel, a project of several years, and hopes especially that it reaches a younger audience that he fears is indifferent to the Holocaust, but might be attracted to a suspenseful story. He includes his own adult grandchildren.
Born in Budapest in 1934, Landori is old enough to remember World War II and the Nazi occupation of Hungary from March 1944 to January 1945. As a boy, he saw the murders of Jews beside the Danube River and the everyday persecution of his Jewish friends and neighbours. He blames not only the Germans, but also many of his countrymen.
“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 one Muslim. They were never heard from again,” he said.
Troubled by these memories, Landori, a Catholic by upbringing, paid special attention to the unfolding of the Swiss accounts scandal. He lived with his family in Switzerland for two years after the war.
Landori was struck by the injustice of these banks, which kept up a façade of rectitude while being enriched by the money left by the murdered or now dead whose trust had been betrayed.
It’s clear to Landori that their motivation was never humanitarian, recalling how in 1947, people talked freely about how much money had flowed into Switzerland from Jews and others, including the Nazis.
He dedicates the book to the 600,000 Hungarian Jews who perished in the Holocaust. He credits its literary inspiration to his friend, movie producer André Link, a Hungarian Jew who was confined to the Budapest ghetto.
The labyrinthine plot of Four Equations defies summation, which, in any case, would detract from enjoyment of this page-turner filled with a sweeping cast of characters and head-spinning twists. Those who understand high finance will appreciate its likely accurate portrayal of the sleight-of-hand behind the movement of big money.
Others can just go along for the ride – from the pathos of history to modern-day glamour.
Protagonist Jack Brennan is a young, carefree bankruptcy trustee living in Toronto, scion of a prominent Irish-American family, who is mystified by an unclaimed, but still growing, account he finds while working on the liquidation of a failed bank in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven – an assignment Landori once had.
The other major figure is long dead. Hungarian Jewish physicist Peter Gombos won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1936. On the advice of a non-Jewish Swiss colleague who foresees the Nazi threat to Jews, Gombos deposits his prize –156,850 Swedish krona – into a numbered Swiss account.
As the accounts would be deemed dormant after 20 years of inactivity, he opens accounts in two other private banks, leaving a standing order that a small sum be deposited and withdrawn from among them every year.
Gombos is killed when a bridge mined by the Nazis blows up unintentionally in 1944. His Russian Jewish wife, an artist, and two young sons are murdered by Arrow Cross thugs soon after.
Before that, Gombos had his wife paint a portrait of him and the two children, in which he is seen writing on a blackboard four equations (whence 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.
Back to the present – that account has ballooned to over $150 million and is, in fact, a major shareholder of one of the banks. When bad investments during the Wall Street crash threaten one bank’s viability, the race is on to gain control of the mysterious account.
Meanwhile, Brennan, whose maternal grandmother was born in Hungary, desperately searches for the rightful owner of the Cayman account.
If Gombos has no heir, he wants the money to benefit Hungarian survivors and their families – but Brennan is in for a life-altering surprise.
The banks, meanwhile, are trying to stave off not only his claim, but a second claim from a high-class Jewish prostitute in Hamburg, who is put up to the fraud by a truly criminal executive of one of the banks.
“My goal is not to tarnish Switzerland or its banks, but to try to show the collateral consequences of the Holocaust that people tend to forget, but which are being felt today and will be for generations to come,” Landori said, observing that many millions in Swiss banks are still unclaimed.