A new computer program designed to identify the living owners or heirs of dormant Swiss bank accounts appears to be working, according to those monitoring the process.
“We are finding more matches of claimed accounts to actual accounts, so we are able to make more awards,” said Greg Schneider of the Conference on Jewish and Material Claims Against Germany.
Claims against Swiss banks totaling about $256 million have been paid from the $800 million set aside for them in the $1.25 billion Swiss bank settlement with Holocaust victims and their heirs. Among others receiving money are slave laborers and those denied entry into Switzerland.
Burt Neuborne, the lead settlement attorney in the case, said last August the amount was $171 million.“By the end of the year, we’ll be upwards of $300 million,” he predicted, attributing the new matches to a software program that checks claims against nicknames, different spellings of names and other variants as they appear on bank records.
The average award has been about $130,000.The latest accounting came as the Brooklyn federal judge overseeing the settlement approved the awarding of $21.9 million to 14 family members of two Holocaust victims. It was the largest single award in the case against Swiss banks.
Judge Edward Korman confirmed the findings of a court-appointed review tribunal, which called the award “unique” in size and a “striking example of the widespread betrayal of Jewish clients by Swiss banks.”
“Having marketed themselves to the Jews of Europe as a safe haven for their property, Swiss banks repeatedly turned Jewish-owned property over to Nazis in order to curry favor with them,” the tribunal said.
Putting in a claim for the money was Maria Altmann, 89, of Los Angeles, who last year won approval from the U.S. Supreme Court to pursue her case against the Austrian government for the return of six paintings by the Austrian painter Gustav Klint. The paintings once belonged to her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.
To prove her case against the Swiss banks, her lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, had to comb through archival records and family documents. All bank records, the Swiss banks conceded, were “destroyed completely.”
The tribunal added that the case was an example of how the Nazis succeeded in seizing control of Jewish property, “ranging from outright theft to sophisticated distress sales orchestrated by compliant tax officials and faithless banks and disguised by the veneer of ‘law.’ ”The extended Bloch-Bauer family owned Austria’s largest sugar-refining factory, numerous mansions and a magnificent art collection.
In December 1937, in what is believed to have been one of the last grand Jewish weddings in Vienna before the war, Maria Bloch-Bauer married Fritz Altmann, an aspiring opera singer. Hitler marched into Vienna shortly after they returned from their honeymoon.
A week before the Nazi annexation, the Bloch-Bauer men — along with their business partner, Otto Pick — traveled to a Swiss bank, set up a binding trust account and deposited a large amount of stock with the provision that it could be sold only with the unanimous consent of the family shareholders.
The tribunal said the men’s action was clearly “not to cooperate with, or give into, the Nazis.”
The JTA identified the bank as the predecessor of UBS, today the world’s largest financial services and wealth management firm with branches in 50 countries.
Two days after the annexation of Austria, according to the tribunal, the Gestapo went to the sugar company’s office and appointed a cashier, the only employee who was a Nazi Party member, to run the business.
To pressure the family to turn over the sugar company stock to the Nazis after the death of Altmann’s father, the Gestapo arrested her brother and held him until he promised to turn it over. Nazi officials then began what the tribunal called a sham criminal tax proceeding against the company that was intended to depress the price that a Nazi purchaser would have to pay. But family members balked at selling to a Cologne businessman who was a known Nazi sympathizer. At that point, according to a December 1938 letter, the bank decided to dissolve the trust agreement’s stipulation that there must be unanimous family consent to sell the stock and, without waiting for a response, sold it to the Cologne businessman.