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Maria Vs the Nazis

Maria Vs the Nazis

Posted: Tuesday, 15th May 2007

Martin Smith, writer of Stealing Klimt, on his involvement in the story of Maria Altmann, and her fight to reclaim her family’s stolen legacy.

The chance to spend hours immersed in the life story of Maria Altmann was one I couldn’t resist. Her experiences aren’t like those encountered in most Holocaust related documentaries, in some ways it feels more like a David and Goliath feature film – Erin Brockovich springs to mind.

Maria’s fight for the return of the Klimt paintings threw a harsh spotlight on Austria’s support for the Nazis, its post-war conduct and the continued injustices suffered by Holocaust survivors. It also brought the Austrian public, and the international art world, face-to-face with unanswered questions about the value of art and its importance in shaping national identity and cultural values.

Decades of letter writing and appeals got Maria nowhere yet, even when she was the only close relative left alive, Maria wouldn’t give up. She didn’t have enough resources to pay for an international lawyer to sue the Austrian government, but Randol Schoenberg, a family friend and grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, was setting up new law firm and willing to take up the case on ‘no-win no-fee’ basis.

I joined the project after director Jane Chablani and her colleague Gilonne d’Origny had followed and filmed the legal battle for many months, it was a time when Maria’s victory was far from certain. Despite years of winning her case in the American courts - including a stunning success in the US Supreme Court (where the US State Department sided with Austria rather than an American citizen of good standing) Maria still hadn’t got her property back. Yet fighting two governments and hundreds of bureaucrats Maria hadn’t lost her good humour and sheer joy of life.

Early in 2006, in her ninetieth year, she was confidently waiting, day-by-day, for the final verdict. Her lawyer was less optimistic, by then the decision was in the hands of three arbitrators - all of them employed by the Austrian government.

I’m credited as the writer but in truth the story told itself, thanks to a determined production team and, most important of all, an elderly woman who took on two governments and won.

From the episode Stealing Klimt, 15th May 2007

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