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Where did the vast inheritance of German Jewish magnate Karl Wertheim vanish during the Holocaust? Florida attorney Chezky Rodal, representing beneficiaries of the fortune, declares war
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
F rom an office in Dania Beach, Florida, attorney Yechezkel (Chezky) Rodal has gone to battle against a German bank he claims has absconded with a family fortune worth $3 billion.
The suit, filed on behalf of the Wertheim Jewish Education Trust against Deutsche Bank, alleges that the bank has refused to return the vast sums that were transferred to its coffers in the 1990s, funds belonging to heirs of the Wertheim family fortune, whose trust fund has been earmarked for Jewish education causes.
The accounts date back more than 80 years, as the fortune crisscrossed from Spain to Switzerland, where it was protected by Credit Suisse during the Nazi regime under secret numbered accounts and pseudonyms. Those accounts, according to the lawsuit, were later transferred to Deutsche Bank.
“This lawsuit revolves around one question: What happened to the fortune of the Wertheim family?” Rodal tells Mishpacha. “We know that Credit Suisse was their bank, and they gave the Wertheim heirs documents that showed a transfer of money to Deutsche Bank on January 20, 1993. Since then, the trail has gone cold.”
The Wertheims were a Jewish family of industrialists from Berlin and Frankfurt. The Berlin branch of the family owned a chain of department stores and valuable real estate holdings, all of which were nationalized by the Nazis during WWII. After the war, a Nazi-affiliated lawyer in whose care the assets were transferred located a few family members in America who had managed to escape from Europe with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and persuaded them to sell their property and business rights for a mere few thousand dollars. (The property was at the center of a prolonged legal battle that concluded in 2007, with an agreement to pay compensation of €88 million to the heirs of the Berlin Wertheims for their rights to the land upon which a huge office complex was built near the Sony Center in the heart of Berlin.)
Yet the Frankfurt branch of the family — the one at the center of the current lawsuit — managed to keep their assets intact throughout the war years and beyond. The patriarch of this Wertheim line was Joseph Wertheim, who founded a textile and sewing machine empire back in 1862. Wertheim had international business ties that stretched from Europe to Australia, and invested in properties in both Germany and the US. The family also acquired a valuable art collection.
When Joseph Wertheim, father of ten children, passed away in 1899, his empire included 750 employees with revenues of millions of dollars a year. The management of the business was turned over to Karl, his fifth son. Four of Karl’s siblings were later murdered by the Nazis, and the rest, including himself, left Germany with the rise of anti-Semitism after World War I. Karl realized Germany did not bode well for the Jews, and so he moved his business interests to Barcelona, Spain, where he assumed the new identity of Carlos Vallin-Ballin, taking on his mother’s maiden name.
The company was the largest export firm in Catalonia in the days between the world wars, and as early as 1931, Karl Wertheim began stashing his assets in Switzerland. He opened an account with Credit-Anstalt, which later became Credit Suisse, and in order to protect his family fortune, opened several more accounts with secret numbers and assumed names.
Karl and his wife Maria had no children though, and so he appointed his wife’s nephew, Dr. Ambrosius Wolfgang Bauml, as his heir. After Karl’s death in 1945, Maria brought Dr. Bauml on board and together they managed the business.
The financial empire grew far beyond the company’s trademark Wertheim-Rapida sewing machines, and assets branched out to include investment portfolios, real estate in Europe and the United States, as well as the tremendous art collection that had been given to a Swiss company to manage. (The valuable artwork was regularly loaned to museums around the world, including the Prado Museum in Madrid and the National Art Museum of Catalonia, in Barcelona.)
After the war, Maria Wertheim’s reputation spread as a successful and well-connected businesswoman. She was also known for her acts of charity and support, and contributed to the rebuilding of Frankfurt and London after the war. As a token of appreciation to the Wertheim family for their assistance to England, Queen Elizabeth met Maria and thanked her personally. In 1959, Maria Wertheim informed Credit Suisse that Dr. Bauml had power of attorney over all the family accounts, and his diary entries included the list of accounts (with their pseudonyms) and how much money was in each one. According to a handwritten financial ledger from 1961, the family bank accounts had at the time more than $144.5 million. With inflation and linkage alone, the lawsuit claims, the current value of these sums today would be $2,951,934,430 — or nearly $3 billion. And that’s not including monies that were surely invested over the years and that have accrued even more value. (excerpted)
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