For decades after World War II, Greta Beer fought a battle like no other. Displaying the persistence, wit, and passion that friends say defined her, she dedicated herself to fighting for the rights of thousands of other Holocaust survivors and their families, who collectively lost millions in assets during World War II.
Miss Beer’s family was one of many who put their money in Swiss banks during the war, seeing Switzerland as a “safe haven” that would protect their assets. Her father, a factory builder, traveled to Switzerland often, depositing money there and telling his children not to worry, that the money was safe and they would be provided for, according to Miss Beer.
But when Miss Beer’s father became ill and died in the early 1940s, she and her mother didn’t have any of the bank account numbers; they didn’t even know what bank Miss Beer’s father had been using. They unsuccessfully “went from bank to bank” to find the accounts, Miss Beer testified during a US Senate committee hearing in April 1996.
They couldn’t get any answers.
“May I just say in that unbelievable hell around us, this was a safe haven,” she said during the hearing. “This was a bastion you looked to. It was a star in the sky, Switzerland, and today the fact that I find myself here is deplorable.”
Miss Beer, a Romanian Jew whose fight for her family’s wealth is credited by many as the impetus for a $1.25 billion settlement in 1998 that was paid by the Swiss banks as restitution to thousands of Holocaust survivors, died Jan. 23 in her Brighton home, where she had lived for many years. She was 98.
Miss Beer’s eloquent testimony in 1996 before the Senate’s Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee put a spotlight on an issue that she had frustratingly dealt with alone for decades. She didn’t read any written testimony that day — and apologized to the committee for it — but she said she “spoke from my heart, albeit a very heavy heart.”
She shared stories about her and her mother’s trips through Switzerland, trying to find their father’s bank accounts and get their assets back.
Miss Beer testified that her mother was treated disrespectfully when she tried to locate the money, including by one person from a bank who asked if she had been “hit over the head by a German soldier with the butt of a gun.”
“My mother, who went to one of the oldest universities in the world, the same university where the pope went, Jagiellonian in Krakow, who had three or four years of philosophy there, said, ‘no,’ ” Miss Beer said.
Unlike many families whom Miss Beer fought for, her family’s accounts were never located, and she didn’t get a share of the settlement. In 2002, however, a federal judge granted her a $100,000 payment “in recognition of her services to the Settlement Class members.”
“Although she had a sort of powerful persona, it wasn’t because she was overpowering in her speech,” said Stuart Eizenstat, a former US ambassador to the European Union who testified alongside Miss Beer in her fight for restitution. “She spoke quietly, but it was the stories she told that were so compelling and were so inspiring.”
Over the years, Eizenstat added, the two became close friends.
“She really empowered a tremendous number of people,” he said.
Born in Romania in 1921, Grete Georgia Deligdisch was the older of two children whose parents were Siegfried Deligdisch and Rachelle Gutter, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, where the collection includes historic documents about the Deligdisch family. Her brother died several years ago.
She changed the spelling of her first name when she became an American citizen.
Miss Beer went to school in Romania and continued at a “finishing school” in Switzerland, said her friend Doina Simovici, the executor of her estate.
Shortly after World War II began, Miss Beer’s father became sick with a kidney condition, and her family left Romania for Hungary to get him treatment. After he died, her family returned to Romania and survived the war by staying with a friend.
“There were programs in Bucharest but there were pockets all over where lots of Jews were safe — like in the concentration camps, some survived, some didn’t,” she told the Senate committee in her 1996 testimony.
She and her brother eventually managed to leave Romania, and Miss Beer fled first to Budapest and then to Vienna. By the mid-1950s, she was able to get a visa to move to the United States, and she became an American citizen in 1956.
“She loved this country,” Simovici said, adding that “politics was a good part of her life.”
Miss Beer, already in her 90s, even joined the crowds on the Boston Common in January 2017 to participate in the Women’s March.
“She was trying to convince everybody of her conviction,” Simovici said. “She was very intense and everything she believed in, you better believe it, because if not, you’ll hear from her all the time, every day.”
When Miss Beer first moved to the United States, she spent several decades living in New York City, where she worked briefly as a secretary and then as a tour guide. She later moved to the Boston area.
Miss Beer also was married for about two decades. She and Dr. Simon Beer married in Italy in 1949. They divorced in 1969, Simovici said, and he died in 2000. They did not have children.
Miss Beer spoke six languages: Romanian, German, Polish, French, Italian, and English. She was a voracious reader, her friends say, and she loved visiting museums and traveling.
She was especially drawn to music, said her friend, Carol McKeen, who met Miss Beer at an opera performance about 12 years ago. Miss Beer enjoyed the music so much that she conducted with her hands and sang along during the performance.
“Greta had a way of just engaging people,” McKeen said.
Miss Beer was raised with Jewish faith and remained spiritual throughout her life. She was also interested in Buddhist teachings in her later years, McKeen said.
“She was a sponge for knowledge, and she loved to have discussions,” she said.
Details of a memorial service will be announced.
Miss Beer’s friends say she often asked them at the end of their phone conversations not to forget her — a concept that astounded many who say they could never forget her impact.
“I would always say, ‘Greta you know I don’t forget you, both personally and because of what you did. I love you. I’ll never forget you,’ ” Eizenstat said.
He added that he thought she “always meant, ‘Don’t forget what I started. Don’t forget what I catalyzed.’ ”