Maria Altmann is 89. She lives in L.A. and has been negotiating with the Austrian government in the hope of receiving back family paintings taken during the Nazi era and now sitting in an Austrian national museum. The paintings, painted by Gustav Klimt and including one of her aunt, are worth $150 million.
Meanwhile, Altman and other heirs of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer and Otto Pick who were majority owners in one of Austria’s largest sugar refineries before WWII, have also attempted to receive compensation from Swiss banks for their turning over of family assets to the Nazis.
In 1938, with Austria on the brink of a Nazi takeover, Bloch-Bauer, Pick and their families sought to protect their interest in the refinery by transferring their shares to a bank in Zurich.
The bank guaranteed 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, the tribunal report said.
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 to the Nazis in order to curry favor with them,” the tribunal wrote.
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.”
Altman and the other heirs were awarded $21.9 million today.
I heard her speak on NPR about the Klimt painting conflict once and she was a very intelligent, well spoken and knows exactly what she’s doing and why. Good for her. Here is an article describing her joy at winning today’s award.
In the meantime, it is interesting to learn from these articles that the family did manage to escape. They split up and some went to L.A., while others went to…Vancouver, B.C. The father opened a phone book to anglicize his name and chose the name Bentley. He then launched a new company…which became Canfor.
Today, his son Peter Bentley, is the Chairman of Canfor, one of North America’s largest forest supplies concerns (yup, they chop down lotsa trees). Canfor is a fairly large enterprise, and was recently listed on Forbes Global 2000 (largest 2000 companies in the world) among a select few Canadian companies. You can find Bentley’s bio on the Canfor website. You can find the company’s history here. While Bentley became an Officer of the Order of Canada, and has been a benefactor to some significant organizations, I could not find a single mention of any contribution or link to the Jewish community.
This is fascinating because the Reichmanns also had a father who was very successful in business in Europe and he and the children were able to replicate the success in Canada. Needless to say, the Reichmanns didn’t change their Jewish name or customs to blend in better, but I understand why the elder Mr. Bentley did it.