Franz Molnar’s Heirs Fight Over His Bank Account, And Their Identity

New Chapter: Franz Molnar’s story has taken a new twist, as two different families lay claim to his Swiss bank account.
FORWARD ASSOCIATION
New Chapter: Franz Molnar’s story has taken a new twist, as two different families lay claim to his Swiss bank account.

By Nathaniel Popper

Published July 01, 2009, issue of July 10, 2009.
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Novelist and playwright Franz Molnar’s life was always high on drama. He wrote works that were turned into Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals, including the Rodgers and Hammerstein favorite “Carousel.” In his personal life, Molnar fled Hungary to escape the Nazis and lived the high life in New York City until his death in 1952.

Now, a new chapter in the Jewish émigré’s story is playing out long after his death. This drama involves Molnar’s Swiss bank accounts, an Episcopal priest, Jewish family mythology and an allegation of fraud.

The Swiss bank accounts causing all the trouble were left behind by Molnar and his wife when they fled Hungary before the Nazi onslaught. Like thousands of other Swiss bank accounts lost in the war years, Molnar’s were made public in the Holocaust restitution process a few years back, when a tribunal was set up to disburse the proceeds.

In 2007, Molnar’s great-grandson, Gabor Lukin, came forward to make a claim for the money from these accounts. For years, Lukin was among a few descendants of Molnar who had received royalties from the playwright’s estate, and Lukin assumed that his family also would receive the funds from Molnar’s bank accounts.

The problem was that another family of Molnars already had claimed the money. Elizabeth Rhodes, a corporate consultant from Ohio, had submitted a claim in 2001 for the bank accounts on behalf of her aunt and her father, an Episcopal priest named Peter Molnar. In claiming the funds, Rhodes noted that most of her family is not Jewish, but she pointed to family lore in arguing that her Jewish great-grandfather had been the brother of Franz Molnar.

Rhodes’s claim reached the tribunal first, and her family was awarded $226,000 in 2004. But since Molnar’s real heirs have come forward, the lawyer overseeing the tribunal, Michael Bradfield, has said the relation that Rhodes originally asserted was “completely undocumented, and entirely implausible.”

Bradfield cited a host of documentary evidence indicating that Rhodes had no relation to the playwright, including the fact that the playwright’s last name at birth actually had been Neumann, not Molnar. Bradfield concluded that Rhodes had “misled” the tribunal.

All this has not swayed Rhodes or made her willing to give back a penny. Her lawyer has said that Rhodes’s father and aunt already have spent the $226,000 that they were awarded. In a hearing in late April, Rhodes said that her family stories are stronger than the evidence Bradfield has turned up.

“No one has shaken our belief that we are family of this person,” Rhodes argued in the April 29 meeting with Bradfield, according to a transcript of the event. “What I am stating is that this was family. And that is what I believe.”

Bradfield shot back, “Don’t you think that is misleading?”

Bradfield, the so-called special master for the Claims Resolution Tribunal, is set to make a decision on whether the money should be returned. When the award was initially handed out, Rhodes signed a document stating that she would return the money if a more convincing claim were to be made, but it is unclear if the tribunal will have the power to demand the money back.

The case has taken on particular intensity, because Franz Molnar’s grandchildren are represented by one of the most famous Holocaust restitution attorneys in the country, Randol Schoenberg. It was Schoenberg who helped a Los Angeles woman recover five Gustav Klimt paintings from an Austrian museum — one of which was sold for a reported $135 million.

Schoenberg has taken the Molnar case to a personal level. Last December, he wrote an e-mail to the lawyers representing Rhodes that began, “I hope you can sleep well at night.”

“It has been 13 months since I first notified Elizabeth Rhodes that her family was (a) not related and (b) not the legal heirs of Franz and Lili Molnar,” Schoenberg wrote. “My clients have yet to receive any sort of apology from your clients for making a false claim and taking money that clearly, by any standard, did not belong to them.”

“People behave really weird when it comes to these restitution cases,” Schoenberg told the Forward. “My MO is always to lay it all out on the table. This stuff happened 70 years ago. There should be no secrets and hiding things. These people wouldn’t even respond.”

Rhodes is being represented by another big name in Holocaust restitution, Michael Bazyler, who wrote one of the leading books on the restitution process. Bazyler said that he could not talk about the details of the case, but he did say he believed that Rhodes and her family should not have to give back the money. Bazyler said that if Bradfield’s tribunal thinks Schoenberg’s clients deserve the award, they should make a second award rather than taking back the money that Rhodes’s family collected.

In the April hearing, Bradfield scolded Rhodes and her lawyers for presenting a constantly shifting story about the relationship between Rhodes’s great-grandfather and Franz Molnar. Rhodes initially had said they were brothers, and then that they were half-brothers — and she more recently has admitted that she is not sure of the exact relation.

“The story has been changing, depending upon the circumstances,” Bradfield said, “and I think the answer is what you said, that you don’t know.”

Bradfield was particularly critical of Rhodes for not sharing the money with other relatives of hers who would have had equal claim to the money if she were, in fact, related to Molnar.

At the hearing, Rhodes and her aunt and father argued that they were deeply ethical people. Rhodes pointed to her work in Holocaust commemoration, and her father to his work as an Episcopal priest. Rhodes’s aunt, Roberta Gunderson, said: “I’m a good person. I would never commit fraud. Never.”

Schoenberg, who is the grandson of the famous composer Arnold Schoenberg, said he understands how families often build up myths of their relations to greatness. In this twisted tale of confused family identity, Bradfield gave one of the final words to a Hungarian genealogist who had informed Rhodes that there was little evidence linking her great-grandfather and the great playwright.

“Your genealogical puzzle is so typical to others that I am not surprised,” Bradfield said, quoting the genealogist. “Truth mingled into legends.”

Contact Nathaniel Popper a popper@forward.com.


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