Maria V. Altmann, a tall, animated 89-year-old, found her story splashed on the front pages of the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times on April 14.
The next morning, she warmly welcomed a visitor to her art-filled redwood bungalow in Cheviot Hills. For the next 80 minutes, she reminisced about her amazing life and times, before driving off in her '94 Chevrolet to keep an appointment with her hairdresser.
What made Altmann newsworthy, and kept her phone ringing incessantly, was an award of $21.8 million to her and her extended family for losses suffered during the Holocaust era.
Altmann's story started in Vienna, where Maria Viktoria was born in 1916 as the pampered daughter of the fabulously wealthy Bloch-Bauer family. The extended clan owned Austria's largest sugar refining factory, numerous mansions and a stunning art collection.
The Bloch-Bauers were Jewish, but in the selective style of Central Europe's Jewish upper class.
"We went to a temple once a year on Yom Kippur, where I remember seeing the Rothschilds, the men in top hats and cutaway coats," Altmann said. "But otherwise, we celebrated Christmas and Easter. That's sometimes hard to explain to American Jews."
In December 1937, in perhaps the last grand Jewish wedding in Vienna, Maria Bloch-Bauer married Fritz Altmann, an aspiring opera singer, and the newlyweds left for an extended honeymoon. Shortly after their return, Hitler's troops marched into Vienna on March 12, 1938, amid the unrestrained jubilation of the Austrian people, Maria Altmann remembered well.
A week before the Nazi annexation, the Bloch-Bauer men and their partner, Otto Pick, had seen what was coming. To shield their property, they traveled to a Swiss bank, set up a binding trust account and deposited a block of stock, with the provision that it could be sold only with the unanimous consent of the family shareholders.
Almost immediately, the bank reneged on the agreement and sold the stock in the sugar factory to a German businessman with the right Nazi connections at a fraction of its value.
As a tribunal that authorized the $21.8 million award noted in a 52-page report, "Having marketed themselves to the Jews of Europe as a safe harbor for their property, Swiss banks repeatedly turned Jewish-owned property over to Nazis in order to curry favor with them."
The identity of the Swiss bank entrusted by the Bloch-Bauers has not been revealed in the lengthy tribunal report or in the media. However, The Journal has learned that the bank was the Schweizerische Bankgesellschaft (Union Bank of Switzerland), headquartered in Zurich. In 1998, the Union Bank merged with another Swiss bank to form UBS, now the world's largest financial services and wealth management firm, with branches in 50 countries. The Swiss banks have denied wrongdoing.
The money awarded to Altmann and her family derives from a $1.25 billion fund established by Swiss banks in 1998 to settle a vast class-action suit.
Subsequently, a Claims Resolution Tribunal was set up by federal Judge Edward R. Korman to adjudicate approximately 32,000 claims, mainly from Jews who had lost deposits in Swiss bank accounts. The award to the Altmann family is the largest paid out so far.
Altmann bears no ill will toward Switzerland, which gave refuge to some family members, pointing to the German and Austrian Nazis as the true villains.
The $21.8 million award is being shared by 13 surviving heirs, with Altmann's share coming to $2 million.
Altmann, mother of four, grandmother of six and expectant great-grandmother, helped support herself until two years ago by running a fashionable dress shop for women 40 and older. She plans no changes in her lifestyle.
"I won't give up my home of 30 years, and I will certainly keep my beloved car," the venerable Chevy, she said.
She plans to make donations to some Jewish causes, although she has no connections to the Los Angeles Jewish community.
"Unfortunately, I wasn't really raised Jewish," she said. "My husband, whose family came from Poland, was very strongly Jewish. We used to have arguments about that. I agreed to have a ritual circumcision for our sons, if he let me have a Christmas tree."
Altmann confessed hesitantly to one great dream, to honor the memory of her late husband, whose ambitions for an opera career were cut short when he had to flee Austria. Her dream scenario calls for a performance by the Los Angeles Opera, dedicated to her husband and starring its general director, tenor Placido Domingo.
"I have never met Placido, but he is the love of my life," she said.
She doesn't have sufficient money at this time to arrange it, however, help may be on the way. Over the past decade, Altmann has been pursuing a lawsuit against the Austrian government to recover six paintings by the Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, confiscated by the Nazis from her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.
The paintings, including a world-famous portrait of Altmann's aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, are valued at $150 million.
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