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Jewish Journal

Court Clears Way for Suit Over Nazi Loot

by Tom Tugend

June 10, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Maria Altmann, the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, with a reproduction of one of the two Gustav Klimt paintings that were stolen by the Nazis. Her family is in a lawsuit against the Austrian government to get the originals back. Photo by Lawrence K. Ho/LA Times

Maria Altmann, the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, with a reproduction of one of the two Gustav Klimt paintings that were stolen by the Nazis. Her family is in a lawsuit against the Austrian government to get the originals back. Photo by Lawrence K. Ho/LA Times

"Iam thrilled that there is justice in this world," said a jubilant Maria Altmann, after celebrating her victory with a family dinner outing.

"This is more than just a Jewish case and it's more than I had hoped for," added the 88-year old Cheviot Hills resident.

The "case" referred to a U.S. Supreme Court decision on Monday, which represented a path-breaking legal advance for families of Holocaust victims and survivors seeking restitution.

The court ruled that Americans can sue foreign governments in U.S. courts over looted art, stolen property and war crimes dating back to the Holocaust era and World War II.

The decision is both a legal milestone and a personal triumph for Altmann, who is seeking the return from Austria of paintings confiscated by the Nazis in 1938.

Involved are six paintings by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, now valued at $150 million, including a stunning portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Altmann's aunt.

Austria, backed by Washington, has been fighting the return of the paintings, now hanging in its national gallery, arguing that under a U.S. statue a sovereign state is immune to lawsuits filed in American courts.

However, a 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court upheld Altmann's contention that there were retroactive exceptions to the immunity, in this case for property seized in violation of international law.

The court decision will likely have major international ramifications, said professor Michael J. Bazyler of the Whittier Law School, who analyzed the Altmann case in his book "Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in American Courts" (New York University Press, 2003).

The most immediate impact will be on pending actions against the French and Polish governments, which have also claimed immunity against lawsuits in U.S. courts.

Holocaust survivors and their heirs are suing the French railroad system for transporting them to concentration camps, and other suits are pending against Poland for the return of seized property, Bazyler said.

Germany may also be open to new property claims, said law professor Burt Neuborne of New York University, who was the lead counsel in suits to recover Holocaust-era deposits in Swiss banks.

Other beneficiaries could be Korean women who were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers in World War II.

However, the court decision will not affect a number of class action suits against European insurance companies, or slave labor suits against foreign factories and mines, since such suits are against private companies, not governments, Bazyler and Neuborne noted.

The Supreme Court decision leaves an opening for the U.S. State Department to intervene on behalf of Austria, although a recent U.S.-Austria treaty is ambiguous on that point.

In any case, it behooves the Jewish community to exert pressure on the State Department to stay out of the follow-up on the case, said Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, who filed an amicus brief in the case.

Bet Tzedek Legal Services of Los Angeles also filed a brief on Altmann's behalf.

The entire case now goes back to the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, where a trial will determine the original question whether the paintings belong to Altmann or the Austrian national gallery.

The victory was especially sweet for E. Randol Schoenberg, a 37-year old Brentwood lawyer, who had single-handedly argued the case against high-powered lawyers for the Austrian and American governments in his first Supreme Court appearance. It's "a dream come true," he said.

He is himself a descendant of a prominent Austrian-Jewish family as the grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Austrian Consul General Peter Launsky-Tiefenthal said in Los Angeles that he had not received any immediate reaction from his government.

Schoenberg will discuss the Altmann case and related issues on Friday, June 25, during 6:30 p.m. services and a following dinner at Mishkon Tephilo, 206 Main Street, Venice. For information and dinner reservations, call (310) 392-3029.

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