Bernard Madoff’s victims may be at war over who gets what, but in the gallery of Judge Denny Chin’s Manhattan courtroom this morning, there was a chummier, almost giddy, vibe in the air. My pewmates included Carol Baer, an Upper West Side café owner whose 100-year-old mother knew Ruth Madoff’s parents from a Catskills bungalow colony called Sunny Oaks (the family that owned Sunny Oaks, like the Baers, lost everything to Bernie, she said); George Nierenberg, a self-described “award-winning documentary filmmaker” who had annoyed Chin back at Madoff’s plea hearing in March by imploring Madoff to turn around and face his victims; Robert Neuwirth, a retired lawyer with a jolly air who just came to watch; and a man in a hooded sweatshirt who was absorbed in a book called Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, and would reveal only that he was from Latvia.
Baer and Nierenberg chatted about the online forum they are both part of, the Madoff Survivors Group; Neuwirth tried to remember whether he knew any Baers; and everyone speculated about what Madoff’s sentence would be and what drove the man to cheat when he could have prospered honestly. (Neuwirth: “Look at Meyer Lansky! Meyer Lansky could have been a brilliant accountant.”)
Baer said she thought that the camaraderie among Madoff victims went deeper than mere kibitzing.
“People who work for me pretend to be compassionate,” she said, but still see her basically as well-off. “I think their sympathy is not deep. But you know within the group that it is.”
Nierenberg and Baer weren’t among those victims who spoke at the sentencing, though both gave interviews to the press earlier in the day. The nine who did speak almost unanimously presented themselves as working people who had lost everything, people who had lost not their third home but their first one. Perhaps the most eloquent was Burt Ross, a real estate developer who invoked Dante in his condemnation of Madoff.
“Was he a righteous Jew, who served on the boards of Jewish institutions, when he sank so low?” he intoned. “Was he a righteous Jew, when in fact he has done nothing but perpetuate the stereotype that all we want is money, when in fact there are no more charitable people on the earth?”
Madoff, as you’ve likely heard, was sentenced to 150 years, a duration that did not seem to disappoint the cheering crowd. A few minutes before the punishment was announced, Nierenberg got his wish: Madoff turned around and, for one creepy moment, looked his victims in the eyes.