Swiss Banks Called to Account for Nazi Ties

Times Staff Writer

Denouncing Swiss banks for their “widespread betrayal of Jewish clients,” a tribunal Wednesday awarded an elderly Los Angeles woman and a dozen relatives $21 million from a fund established to compensate Holocaust survivors whose assets were illegally seized during the Nazi era.

It was the largest award to date by the Claims Resolution Tribunal, formed in 1998 in the settlement of class-action lawsuits brought against Swiss banks in Brooklyn, N.Y., federal court.

The suits charged that the banks collaborated with the Nazis and withheld from Holocaust survivors and their heirs vast sums of money deposited for safekeeping before World War II. To settle the case, a consortium of Swiss financial institutions agreed to pay $1.25 billion to Holocaust victims.

Sharing in the award announced Wednesday will be Maria V. Altmann, 89, who fled her native Austria after the Nazi takeover in 1938. She eventually made her way to Los Angeles and opened a dress shop.


Altmann said she didn’t know the banks had passed her family fortune to the Nazis until her lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, persuaded her to file a claim with the tribunal.

“It’s like a beautiful fairy tale,” Altmann said after learning of the award. “And an ugly one for the Swiss banks.... I never dreamed there was so much money stolen from our family.”

Last year, Altmann won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case allowing her to pursue a lawsuit to recover six paintings valued at $150 million. The paintings had been confiscated by the Nazis from her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Viennese merchant.

The contested paintings by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, including a world-famous portrait of Altmann’s aunt, Adele, have been on display at an Austrian national gallery.

Austria, supported by the U.S. government, argued that it was immune under a federal law blocking most lawsuits against foreign governments.

But the high court ruled 6 to 3 for Altmann and sent the case back to Los Angeles federal court for trial, which is pending.

Altmann said she harbors no hard feelings toward the Swiss, noting that they provided sanctuary to her uncle when he fled Vienna after Nazi Germany’s takeover of Austria.

The Claims Resolution Tribunal, however, was highly critical of the Swiss banking establishment’s conduct during the war. In a 52-page report, the tribunal said Bloch-Bauer’s treatment was “a striking example of the widespread betrayal of Jewish clients by Swiss banks.”

Bloch-Bauer, who died in poverty in Switzerland in 1945, had been a major shareholder in Osterreichische Zuckerindustrie AG, Austria’s biggest sugar refiner.

Just before the Nazi takeover, the company’s Jewish owners transferred their shares for safekeeping to an unnamed Swiss bank with the promise that they would not be sold or transferred without the owners’ consent.

Sadly, the tribunal’s report said, the bank did not live up to its legal and fiduciary obligations. When the Nazis moved to seize control of the company, the bank cooperated by selling the owners’ shares to a designated Nazi “purchaser” at a fraction of their value, the tribunal found.

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

The tribunal report said its authors were struck by the fact that the bank kept no records of its receipt or disposal of the Jewish owners’ stock shares. The documents on which the $21-million award was based were obtained from outside archival sources.

“We will never know how many other examples of betrayal were buried in the records of the 2,757,950 accounts -- of the 6,858,116 opened in Swiss banks between 1933-45 -- the banks concede they have destroyed,” the report continued.

Austrian Jews, the report said, have experienced exceptional difficulties obtaining restitution for losses suffered during the Holocaust.

It is telling, said the report’s authors, that the Austrian government official who oversaw post-war restitution proceedings regarding Bloch-Bauer’s company was a Nazi Party member who had worked in the office responsible for confiscating Jewish assets in 1938.

As of January, the Claims Resolution Tribunal had received more than 32,000 claims from Nazi victims or their heirs.