.

.

H o l o c a u s t   S u r v i v o r s '   N e t w o r k

.

.

From

A proven example of Swiss banks"widespread betrayal" of their depositors during the Holocaust:
"Having marketed themselves to the Jews of Europe as a safe haven for their property," the United States Federal Court decision said, "Swiss banks repeatedly turned Jewish-owned property over to Nazis in order to curry favor with them."

.

.

 

 

For Betrayal by Swiss Bank and Nazis, $21 Million

 

By WILLIAM GLABERSON
April 14, 2005

 
Eight days before Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938, at a time when much of the world shrugged at the approach of Nazism, two prominent Jewish families in Vienna raced to a Swiss bank. Coolly realistic about the troubles facing them and determined to preserve their ownership of one of the country's largest sugar refineries, they set up a trust account to protect their ownership.

  .


[Ann Johansson for The New York Times]

Maria V. Altmann, 89, whose claim led to yesterday's award, the largest in the suit against Swiss banks.

.



Maria V. Altmann, who is now 89 and lives in Los Angeles, has been fighting for years to recover hundreds of millions of dollars of property she says was stolen from her family after the Nazi annexation of Austria.

 

.



Austrian National Library, Picture Archive

Within months the bank had violated the terms of the account, and the business was "aryanized" - sold for a fraction of its value to a Nazi sympathizer. In a letter dated Dec. 22, 1938, a bank officer provided an explanation as blunt as it was chilling: "The situation has changed

.



Austrian National Library, Picture Archive

The sugar refinery taken from the Bloch-Bauer and Pick families. The Bloch-Bauer and Pick families, which owned the sugar company with other investors, set up a trust account to protect their ownership from the Nazis.

 

.


Maria V. Altmann's brother Leopold Bentley in Vancouver in 1979.

The attempt quickly unraveled. Within months the bank had violated the terms of the account, and the business was "aryanized" - sold for a fraction of its value to a Nazi sympathizer. In a letter dated Dec. 22, 1938, a bank officer provided an explanation as blunt as it was chilling: "The situation has changed."

Yesterday, 67 years later, Edward R. Korman, a federal judge in Brooklyn, approved a $21.8 million award to surviving members of the two families, the Bloch-Bauer and Pick families, which owned the sugar company with other investors. The decision blamed the bank for the families' losses, but did not name the bank.

The award is believed to be one of the largest in the $50 billion restitution programs undertaken since World War II. It is by far the largest award in a claims process that is distributing $1.25 billion paid by Swiss banks in 1998 to settle a vast class-action suit. In that suit, the banks were accused of violating the trust of their Holocaust-era depositors to curry favor with the Nazis.

In a way, to the living descendents of those two families and to a world where the number of surviving victims of the Nazis and their collaborators is dwindling, the huge award is more than that. It provides a detailed trip back to a dark time, showing exactly how the banks' actions helped the Nazis, how lifetimes' achievements were lost in days, and how the process was masked in the language of ledgers, legalisms and banking.

Yesterday's ruling said the story of the Bloch-Bauers' sugar company was an example of the Swiss banks' "widespread betrayal" of their depositors during the Holocaust. Quite a tale it is, one that includes duplicity, a visit by the Gestapo, coercion, a sham tax investigation and what the decision referred to as the bank's "active participation in the confiscation" of the sugar company by the Nazis.

"Having marketed themselves to the Jews of Europe as a safe haven for their property," the decision said, "Swiss banks repeatedly turned Jewish-owned property over to Nazis in order to curry favor with them."

The 1998 settlement, in Brooklyn federal court, followed a heated international debate about the role of the Swiss banks during the Holocaust. The banks said that they did not help the Nazis in the widespread seizure of their depositors' assets and that much of the evidence of what happened to depositors' accounts was ambiguous.

Yesterday, Roger M. Witten, a lawyer for UBS and Credit Suisse, said assertions of systematic appropriation of the assets of Holocaust victims and other wrongdoing by the Swiss banks had been rejected by several commissions. "These allegations are false," he said.

 Under the 1998 settlement, though, more than $250 million has been returned to more than 3,000 bank depositors or their heirs by a claims tribunal set up by Judge Korman. Until yesterday, the largest award was one issued in 2002 for $5.9 million to the family of a concert singer who was killed in a concentration camp and left behind several large Swiss accounts.

Yesterday's award stems from a claim filed for the extended Bloch-Bauer and Pick families, who are related by marriage. Maria V. Altmann, who is now 89 and lives in Los Angeles, filed the claim in 2001 as a member of the last generation of her family to come to adulthood in Vienna.

Mrs. Altmann has been fighting for years to recover hundreds of millions of dollars of property she says was stolen after the Nazi annexation of Austria. Last year, she won a decision from the United States Supreme Court in a separate case that will permit her to pursue a lawsuit against the Austrian government for the return of six paintings by Gustav Klimt, the Austrian Art Nouveau painter, that once belonged to her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.

Mrs. Altmann said in a telephone interview that yesterday's decision sounded like a crime novel in its narrative of how the sugar company slipped from the family's control. "I am shuddering," she said. "It is unbelievable for me to grasp that there were people doing such things, and especially a bank."

The narrative began, in a way, with Maria's gilded wedding in Vienna in December 1937. "It was really the last Jewish wedding in Vienna, before Hitler came and everything changed," she said.

It was the Bloch-Bauers' last party, a gathering that included those who ran or were heirs to the sugar company. Maria's uncle, Ferdinand, ran the business. He and his wife, Adele, long dead by then, had had no children. Maria's father, Gustav, a lawyer, was Ferdinand's brother. Maria had a sister and three brothers. The Bloch-Bauers' partner in the sugar business was a wealthy Vienna industrialist, Otto Pick, whose daughter had married Maria's brother Leopold.

The refinery was in the riverside town of Bruck, outside Vienna. It supplied, the ruling said, one-fifth of the country's sugar, the sweetener for, among so many other things, Vienna's pastries. The company was called Österreichische Zuckerindustrie, or Austrian Sugar Industry. Its headquarters was on the top floor of Ferdinand's expansive Vienna home.

Life changed quickly after the wedding: Maria's husband, Fritz Altmann, was briefly held at the Dachau concentration camp in 1938.

The families' March 1938 visit to the bank that resulted in the trust account, the decision said, was an obvious effort to shield the company from the Nazis. The account gave the bank control over a block of stock but said the company could be sold only if the shareholders agreed unanimously.

But two days after the annexation of Austria, according to the decision, the Gestapo went to the sugar company's office and appointed a cashier, the only employee who was a Nazi party

Maria's brother Leopold was arrested by the Gestapo and held until he promised to turn over his sugar-company stock. Nazi officials began a sham criminal tax proceeding against the company that was intended to depress the price that a Nazi purchaser would have to pay.

Soon, the decision said, Swiss bank officials wrote letters to family members, many of whom had fled Austria. The bank officials described an offer for the company made in Vienna by a Cologne businessman who was a Nazi sympathizer. The letters, found in archives, included an acknowledgement that the bank had been unable to get unanimous agreement to a sale as required by the trust. Some shareholders, a letter said, "did not find the Vienna offer worthy of discussion."

But, the bank's December 1938 letter said, "we should like to propose" that the trust agreement requiring unanimous agreement to a sale be dissolved. "If we have not received information to the contrary by 15 January 1939, we shall assume your approval."

The decision said the bank did not even wait for that deadline. Soon, the Cologne businessman with Nazi ties was the owner of the sugar refinery in Bruck.

The sale was illegal, the decision said, though it did not explain why the bank violated its agreement. But it did refer to a bank memorandum from that era that seemed to lay out a framework for such cases. It was uncovered in a 2002 report by a Swiss historical commission that studied the banks' Holocaust-era actions.

The memorandum, written in 1939, acknowledged that there could be legal and moral objections to transferring funds from a depositor's account when it appeared that the withdrawal request was being made under duress. But, the memorandum continued, that bank still had "important interests in Germany, and should avoid friction and unpleasantness whenever possible."

Mrs. Altmann and her husband ended up in Los Angeles. Her brother Leopold and much of the rest of the family went to Vancouver, British Columbia. Their mother, Theresia, Gustav Bloch-Bauer's widow, died in Vancouver in 1961.


 ..

Photograph of the castle outside of Prague that was owned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, which was taken over by Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, copied in the home of his niece Maria Altmann, in Los Angeles.

In Canada, Leopold, with his wife's brother, a member of the Pick family, began a business that is today one of the world's largest lumber companies, Canfor Corporation. Almost as soon as he arrived in Canada in 1938, Leopold changed the family's last name from Bloch-Bauer to Bentley. "He made up his mind that this was permanent," his son Peter Bentley, 75, and the chairman of Canfor, said in an interview.

Leopold believed, Mr. Bentley said, that the anglicized last name, selected from a telephone book, would help in the family's adjustment to life far from the Vienna they left in 1938.

Some of the family's history has been forgotten. But recent scholarship and records uncovered in Mrs. Altmann's legal battles show memories stretched across generations of what some family members thought of as the looting of the family in Vienna. A 2003 book on the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka, who, like Klimt, was a friend of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's, included a 1941 letter from Ferdinand to Kokoschka. "They took away everything from me," he wrote from Zurich, where he was living alone.

"I am totally impoverished," he wrote, "and probably will have to live very modestly for a few years, if you can call this vegetation living." He died in Zurich in 1945.

Mrs. Altmann's Los Angeles lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, is a grandson of Arnold Schoenberg, the Vienna-born composer, who was also a Jewish exile from Nazism. In the scheme of the wrongs of the Holocaust, he said after learning of yesterday's award, the theft of a sugar refinery near Vienna long ago was a small injustice.

"But now, 70 years later," Mr. Schoenberg said, "this is one of the few wrongs you can actually remedy."

 

.

.

© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/14/nyregion/14holocaust.html?pagewanted=1