NEW YORK – A federal judge has approved a $21.9 million award to heirs of two wealthy families victimized by the Holocaust, more than 65 years after a Swiss bank passed their fortune to the Nazis.
The award was by far the largest single claim paid thus far in a case against Swiss banks accused of betraying their Holocaust-era clients to gain favor with the Nazis. Lawyers said the previous high for an award was about $4 million.
U.S. District Judge Edward R. Korman in New York City approved the payment based on the recommendation of a court-appointed tribunal that disburses funds set aside under a settlement between Holocaust survivors and the banks.
In a report dated Wednesday, the tribunal called the award "unique in its size" and "a striking example of the widespread betrayal of Jewish clients by the Swiss banks."
Holocaust survivors and their families sued Credit Suisse Group (search), UBS AG (search) and other Swiss banks, accusing them of stealing, concealing or sending to the Nazis hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Jewish holdings and destroying bank records to cover the paper trail. In 1998, Korman approved a $1.25 billion settlement and appointed the tribunal to process thousands of claims.
The $21.9 million award stems from a claim by Holocaust survivor Maria Altmann, 89, of Los Angeles, and about two dozen unnamed heirs of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer (search) and Otto Pick (search), both major shareholders in a large sugar refinery in Austria before World War II.
Altmann — Bloch-Bauer's niece — "is very gratified," said her attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg. "It's a very generous award."
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.
No records of the Jewish shareholders' deal with the bank were found in its files. Instead, the tribunal relied solely on documents provided by the heirs and independent archives.
"There was no record of this, which is significant because we've been suspicious all along that the banks destroyed an enormous amount of information," said attorney Burt Neuborne, a court-appointed representative for survivors worldwide.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Altmann could sue the Austrian government to retrieve $150 million worth of family paintings stolen by the Nazis. The parties were in mediation this week in California over the six Gustav Klimt (search) paintings now hanging in the Austrian Gallery, including a portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.
In the Swiss bank case, Holocaust survivors and their heirs so far have received more than $254 million in awards. The average award has amounted to about $130,000.