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.
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."
[Ann Johansson for The New York
V. Altmann, 89, whose claim led to yesterday's
award, the largest in the suit
against Swiss banks.
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
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
Austrian National Library, Picture
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
V. Altmann's brother Leopold Bentley in
Vancouver in 1979.
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
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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.
quickly after the wedding: Maria's husband, Fritz
Altmann, was briefly held at the Dachau concentration
camp in 1938.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
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."