Deutsche Bank was sued in Florida by a Jewish charitable trust that claims the firm wrongly withheld as much as $3 billion from the heirs to a wealthy German family.
The lawsuit claims the bank refuses to return the funds initially deposited by the Wertheim family in accounts opened at what is now Credit Suisse Group before the rise of the Nazis in Germany.
Those accounts were later transferred to Deutsche Bank, according to the complaint filed Wednesday in federal court by Wertheim Jewish Education Trust.
Deutsche Bank has “refused to cooperate with the heirs of the Wertheim family fortune in the recovery and return of the monies that they are withholding from the rightful heirs,” and preventing the use of the funds for charitable and other purposes, according to the complaint filed in Fort Lauderdale.
Deutsche Bank is “taking the matter very seriously,” said spokesman Tim-Oliver Ambrosius. “The accusations are completely unfounded, and Deutsche Bank denies them,” he said. “All proceedings initiated against Deutsche Bank in this matter have been decided in favor of Deutsche Bank.”
The charitable trust is an heir to the descendants of Joseph Wertheim, a family that amassed a fortune by building the KaDeWe department store in Berlin and a textile and manufacturing empire in Frankfurt, according to the complaint.
One of those descendants, Karl Wertheim, feared the German rise of anti-Semitism in the 1920s, moved his businesses to Spain and opened an account at Credit Suisse in 1931.
The Swiss bank protected the family assets through the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s and during World War II, using secret numbered accounts, pseudonyms and trust accounts, according to the complaint.
When Karl Wertheim died in 1945, the estate passed to his wife, Maria, who managed the fortune until the early 1970s, according to the lawsuit.
The fortune included the sewing machine and office-machine business of Hispano Olivetti, accounts and investment portfolios in Swiss banks, land in Europe and the U.S. and art collections, it said.
As the health of Maria Wertheim deteriorated, she turned to Ambrosius Wolfgang Bauml to help manage the assets. After she died in 1976, Bauml managed the Wertheim family fortune until his death in 1990, when control passed to the family of Rudolf Sutor.
Through a complex series of events, the assets were transferred in 1993 to Deutsche Bank, which misled the Wertheim heirs for many years about the accounts, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit seeks return of $3 billion and an accounting of the assets in dispute.