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12 Heirs of Nazi Victims Win Swiss Bank Claim

By Ryan Pearson
Associated Press
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page A05

LOS ANGELES, April 14 -- Maria Altmann was still in disbelief Thursday, the day after a New York judge restored part of her family fortune by approving a $21.9 million award to her and 11 other heirs of her uncle and a business partner victimized by the Nazis.

"It's a fairy tale," she said. "It's totally like falling from the sky."

It was by far the largest single claim in a case against Swiss banks accused of stealing, concealing or sending to the Nazis hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of Jewish holdings and destroying records to cover the paper trail.

Altmann, 89, spent part of the day listening to congratulatory phone messages from friends and relatives and talking to reporters -- in English and German -- at her home in the Cheviot Hills area of Los Angeles.

"It's like a novel, because I thought this was a closed chapter," she said in a voice that retains a slight Austrian accent.

In 1938, with Austria on the brink of a Nazi takeover, Altmann's uncle Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, business partner Otto Pick and their families sought to protect their interest in a sugar refinery by transferring their shares to a Zurich bank.

The bank guaranteed that the shares would not be sold without the families' consent. But after family members were arrested or fled the country, the banks bowed to pressure to transfer the shares to a German investor in a Nazi campaign to "Aryanize" Jewish-owned businesses, according to a court-appointed tribunal that disburses money.

Altmann recounted how a brother thought he had recovered all of her uncle's stake in the refinery when he contacted the bank in the 1950s, but the family received just $50,000 at the time.

The award will be disbursed from a $1.25 billion settlement approved in 1998 between Holocaust survivors and Credit Suisse, UBS AG and other Swiss banks.

Altmann lived briefly in Nazi-occupied Austria before escaping through the Netherlands. She moved to Los Angeles with her husband in the early 1940s while he worked for a defense contractor in the war effort.

She intends to give the award money to her four children and may donate some to the Los Angeles Opera.

"All my life, even when I didn't have anything, I loved to give," she said.

Outside, there is a pool in her back yard and, many days, California sunshine beaming through the windows. But inside, Altmann has surrounded herself with memories of her homeland.

The walls of her one-story house are lined with pencil sketches of Austrian villages, a collection of 22 ornate watches from the 17th and 18th centuries, and paintings of relatives -- including a print of a Gustav Klimt portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

The original hangs in the Austrian Gallery. It was Altmann's effort to reclaim it and other paintings for her family that led her attorney to discover how much stock her uncle and his partner had deposited in the Swiss bank.

The art case, involving an estimated $150 million in paintings, is now in mediation. The trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 1 in Los Angeles.

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