How Did One Little Old Lady In Los Angeles Get About $300 Million From The Holocaust?

Frequent contributor to this website, Yisroel Pensack, tipped me off to this story.

Maria Altmann, 89, wasn’t in the Holocaust but as a niece of the late Czech sugar baron Ferdinand Bloch she (along with four other heirs) was awarded the ownership of his five paintings by Austrian Gustav Klimt (the paintings sold in 2006 for about $280 million) and she got a separate $12 million from a Swiss banks fund in 2005 as compensation for money stolen from her relations during World War II.

Tom Tugend wrote for JTA April 17, 2005:

LOS ANGELES, April 17 (JTA) — 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.

…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.”

From Wikipedia:

Maria Altmann (born 18 February 1916), was a refugee of Nazi Austria, living in the Netherlands briefly before moving to Hollywood, California, in the United States. Her ultimately successful attempts to regain five Gustav Klimt paintings owned by her family that had been stolen by the Nazis during World War II made international headlines more than five decades after the war’s end, and involved the courts of two nations.

Born Maria Bloch-Bauer, in Vienna, she married Fritz Altmann in 1937. Fritz Altman was arrested in Vienna in 1938 and held hostage at the Dachau concentration camp to force his brother Bernhard, by then safely in France, to transfer the B. Altmann textile factory into German hands. Fritz was released and the couple fled to America via England in 1940, leaving behind most of their property, including jewelry that later found its way into the hands of Hermann Göring. Maria was naturalized an American citizen in 1945; the couple had four children.

Maria Altmann is a niece of Czech sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch, who owned a small collection of artwork by the Austrian master Gustav Klimt, including two portraits of his wife Adele Bloch-Bauer. During the Nazi Anschluss of 1938, these paintings were looted. Bloch died in 1946, soon after World War II, leaving his estate to a nephew and two nieces, including Altmann. By this time, after the paintings had changed hands a number of times, five of these paintings were in the possession of the Austrian Government.

Attorney E. Randol Schoenberg represented Altmann in both cases. If he received the normal compensation of 30% to 40% for these type of cases, he would’ve snagged about $100 million for his work.

Altmann began her litigation with the Austrian government to claim the paintings in 1999. In 2001, Schoenberg told her she had a potential claim against Swiss banks.

From the AP in April 2005:

The case demonstrated that "having marketed themselves to the Jews of Europe as a safe haven for their property, Swiss banks repeatedly turned Jewish-owned property over the Nazis in order to curry favor with them," the tribunal wrote.

D. emails: Still staying current, sunny Jim… “Frequent contributor to this website, Yisroel Pensack, tipped me off to this story,” my lad breathlessly writes…of a story that made international news in 2005 and 2006. Good job, Sunny Jim. I can hardly wait until to you finally get about to relating other breaking news like Hurricane Katrina, the papal transition, and the Indian Ocean tsunami. You’re a pathetic little ponce, lad, and I regret to this day that I didn’t suffocate you in your crib when I had the chance.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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