After 67 years, the theft of the sugar refinery, which provided 20 per cent of Austria's sugar before the war, had become a piece of family folklore only vaguely remembered by some of the descendants.
But in a stinging rebuke of Swiss bankers during the Nazi era, a New York court has awarded $21.8-million (U.S.) this week to the heirs of the businessmen, including five children of prominent British Columbian Peter Bentley, chairman of timber giant Canfor Corp.
The award is the largest payment yet from a $1.25-billion (U.S.) fund set up by a consortium of Swiss banks for Holocaust victims.
"This award is merely a striking example of the widespread betrayal of Jewish clients by Swiss banks," says a report setting out reasons for the award. "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 favour with them."
Vancouver businessman Michael Bentley, one of 13 descendants identified in the claim, was surprised the family was so successful.
"The money clearly does not belong with the people who stole it," Mr. Bentley, 42, said yesterday in an interview.
But he was not certain where the money belonged.
"It is not something we were counting on," he said. "I'm not going to change my lifestyle as a result of this."
The Bentley family believes in putting things back in the community, he said. "I have to think what I can do that can make a difference," he said.
Mr. Bentley quickly added that he felt any financial restitution pales in comparison with the loss of life and dislocation during the Second World War.
"No monetary settlement can fix that," Mr. Bentley said. "A monetary settlement cannot cover up what went wrong."
The award carries a message to Canada's native people and Japanese-Canadians who lost property, he also said. "It gives people hope that they can receive restitution."
Mr. Bentley first heard last fall about plans to initiate the claim by Maria Altmann, a relative in Los Angeles who is now 89 years old. Unfamiliar with many events in the family's history, he did not anticipate the claim would succeed. "It has not been a big part of our life," he said.
Mr. Bentley's grandfather, L. L. G (Poldi) Bloch-Bauer, moved to Vancouver in 1938, fleeing Austria as Nazi Germany was annexing the country. Poldi was Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's nephew and Otto Pick's son-in-law.
Adopting the last name Bentley, Poldi opened a small furniture and panelling-veneer plant in New Westminster, B.C., with his brother-in-law, John Prentice, who also had fled Austria.
The company expanded into the forest industry to capture part of the market for aircraft-quality plywood during the Second World War. Through a series of acquisitions and expansions during the following decades, the business has become one of the world's largest lumber producers. Canfor, a publicly listed company, now employs more than 10,000 people and has sales close to $3-billion.
U.S. District Judge Edward Korman approved the award based on the recommendation of the Claims Resolution Tribunal, appointed to disburse the funds.
The tribunal report says the bank's complicity in the Nazi confiscation of property "was in violation of the legally binding commitments the bank had made to these shareholders to protect their assets from from seizure."
Mr. Bloch-Bauer and Mr. Pick had transferred their shares in the sugar refinery to the bank with instructions that the shares could not be sold or transferred without the consent of the bank. The agreement with the bank required the financial institution to obtain unanimous agreement of the beneficial owners of the shares before selling or transferring them.
Poldi Bloch Bauer was arrested after Germany invaded Austria in 1938. He was released and allowed to emigrate after abandoning all his property and promising to help procure a transfer of the sugar refinery shares to a Nazi purchaser.
The $21.8-million award reflects the value of the stock on the date of transferred ownership, less sums already paid for the shares, and multiplied by 12.5 to bring it up to current value.
The case reflects the strategies used by the Nazis to seize 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 tribunal said.
The award also reflects the difficulty in seeking restitution. The Austrian representative overseeing restitution proceedings in the 1950s had been a member of the Nazi party and had worked in the office responsible for the confiscation of Jewish assets, beginning in 1938, the tribunal report stated.