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What to Do with Swiss Bank Award? Record-setting Payout Goes to Victims

April 18, 2005
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On April 14, Maria Altmann, a tall, animated lady of 89, found her story splashed on the front pages of The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. What had made her newsworthy, and had kept her phone ringing incessantly, was an award of $21.8 million to her and her extended family for losses suffered during the Holocaust era.

The award money was derived from a $1.25 billion fund established by Swiss banks in 1998 to settle a vast class-action suit.

Subsequently, a Claims Resolution Tribunal was set up by federal Judge Edward Korman to adjudicate some 32,000 claims, mainly from Jews who had lost their deposits in Swiss bank accounts.

Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, which transfers the authorized awards to the claimants, said that so far some $254 million had been paid to 3,000 applicants.

He said that the award to the Altmann family was the largest paid out so far.

The morning after her story made headlines, Altmann warmly welcomed a visitor to her art-filled, redwood bungalow in Los Angeles. For the next 80 minutes, she reminisced about her amazing life and times before driving off in her aging Chevrolet to keep an appointment with her hairdresser.

Altmann’s story has enough heroes and villains for a television miniseries. It started in Vienna, where Maria Viktoria was born in 1916 as the pampered daughter of the fabulously wealthy Bloch-Bauer family. The extended clan owned Austria’s largest sugar-refining factory, numerous mansions and a stunning art collection.

The Bloch-Bauers were Jewish, but in the pick-and-choose style of central Europe’s Jewish upper class.

“We went to a temple once a year on Yom Kippur, where I remember seeing the Rothschilds, the men in top hats and cutaway coats,” recalled Altmann. “But otherwise, we celebrated Christmas and Easter. That’s sometimes hard to explain to American Jews.”

In December 1937, in the last grand Jewish wedding in Vienna, Maria Bloch-Bauer married Fritz Altmann, an aspiring opera singer, and the newlyweds left for an extended honeymoon.

Shortly after their return, Hitler’s troops marched into Vienna amidst what Altmann remembered as the unrestrained jubilation of the Austrian people.

A week before the Nazi annexation, the Bloch-Bauer men — along with their business partner, Otto Pick — foresaw what was coming.

To shield their property, they traveled to a Swiss bank, set up a binding trust account and deposited a block of stock, with the provision that it could be sold only with the unanimous consent of the family shareholders.

Almost immediately, the bank reneged on the agreement and sold the stock in the sugar factory to a German businessman with the right Nazi connections, at a fraction of its value.

As the tribunal which authorized the $21.8 million award noted in a 52-page report, “Having marketed themselves to the Jews of Europe as a safe harbor for their property, Swiss banks repeatedly turned Jewish-owned property over to Nazis in order to curry favor with them.”

The identity of the Swiss bank entrusted by the Bloch-Bauers has not been revealed in the lengthy tribunal report or in the media.

However, JTA has learned that the bank was the Union Bank of Switzerland, headquartered in Zurich.

In 1998, the Union Bank merged with another Swiss bank to form UBS, now the world’s largest financial-services and wealth-management firm, with branches in 50 countries.

Roger Witten, a lawyer for UBS and Credit Suisse, told The New York Times that assertions of systematic appropriation of the assets of Holocaust victims, and of other wrongdoings by the Swiss banks, had been rejected by several commissions, and that such allegations were false.

Attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, who alerted Altmann to her possible claim four years ago, said that the Swiss bank had no documents pertaining to the Bloch-Bauer transaction, and that he had to track down the evidence in U.S., Canadian and Austrian archives.

Altmann herself bears no ill will toward Switzerland, which gave refuge to some family members, pointing to the German and Austrian Nazis as the true villains.

The $21.8 million award is being shared by 13 surviving heirs of the Bloch-Bauer and Pick families in the United States and Canada, with Altmann’s share coming to $2 million.

Altmann, mother of four, grandmother of six and “expectant” great-grandmother, helped support herself until two years ago by running a fashionable dress shop for ladies ages 40 and older.

She plans no changes in her lifestyle. “I won’t give up my home of 30 years and I will certainly keep my beloved car,” the venerable Chevy, she said.

Altmann said she’s planning to make donations to some Jewish causes, although she has no connections to the Los Angeles Jewish community.

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t really raised Jewish,” she said. “My husband, whose family came from Poland, was very strongly Jewish. We used to have arguments about that. I agreed to have a ritual circumcision for our sons, if he let me have a Christmas tree.”

Perhaps her closest relationship to the Jewish people comes from the sense of a shared fate, she said.

She also confessed hesitantly to one great dream, to honor the memory of her late husband, whose ambitions for an opera career were cut short when he had to flee Austria.

Her dream scenario calls for a performance by the Los Angeles Opera, dedicated to her husband and starring its general director, the great tenor Placido Domingo.

“I have never met Placido, but he is the love of my life,” she said.

But she believes that she doesn’t have sufficient money at this time to pull it off.

Help, though, may be on the way. Over the past decade, Altmann and Schoenberg have been pursuing a lawsuit against the Austrian government to recover six paintings by the Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, confiscated by the Nazis from her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.

The paintings, including a world-famous portrait of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, are valued at $150 million.

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