Kinder Sculpture


Jul 2005 Journal

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The General Settlement Fund - a breakthrough, of sorts

The signing of a £12.5m (€18.2m) accord at the end of May between the Austrian government and the Austrian Jewish community has once again shifted the focus in the long-running saga of the distribution of monies from the Austrian General Settlement Fund.

In accepting this sum, made available from the residual monies of the Austrian Reconciliation Fund established to pay compensation to victims used as slave and forced labourers during the Nazi era, the Austrian Jewish community has agreed to drop its support for a lawsuit - Whiteman v Republic of Austria - being heard in the United States. As part of the arrangement, the Austrian Jewish community has also agreed to withdraw the claims it has itself submitted to the General Settlement Fund.

The withdrawal of the Austrian Jewish community's support for the US litigation could pave the way for the suit to be dismissed altogether and - if that were to happen - Austria would have secured the prerequisite end to litigation called for in the Washington Agreement of January 2001. The Washington Agreement provides for the General Settlement Fund, which in turn will provide compensation for a comprehensive range of properties and personal valuables expropriated from Austrian Jewry during the Holocaust.

In the event that the Whiteman lawsuit is withdrawn or dismissed, attention will turn once again to the Austrian National Fund, which is processing applications to the General Settlement Fund. While the National Fund is only part of the way through investigating and assessing the almost 20,000 claims it has received, its General Secretary, Hannah Lessing, has assured applicants that payments will begin once all claims have been processed. Following the agreement between the government and the Austrian Jewish community, she said: 'We will do the utmost we can to have as many claims as possible ready the moment there is legal closure [i.e. an end to litigation].'

In a letter to the trustees of the National Fund, several Austrian survivors have already demanded an increase in the number of staff available to the National Fund so that applications can be handled swiftly and with the necessary priority. The letter also calls for Austria to signal its intent by making an advance payment to those who have applied to the General Settlement Fund.

Responding to the agreement with the country's Jewish community, Austria's Foreign Minister Ursula Plasnik said: 'It is my great concern that elderly victims receive payment before the end of their lifetime. Already at this juncture further consideration should be given to how payments to the claimants can be made as quickly as possible. Even though all claims have not yet been assessed, I am in favour of giving immediate consideration to possible ways and means of realising advance payments to entitled persons.'

Although not impinging on the General Settlement Fund, a separate US lawsuit contesting the ownership of paintings by the artist Gustav Klimt has been voluntarily withdrawn. The plaintiff, Maria Altmann, and the defendant, the Austrian government, have agreed to participate in a tribunal in Austria and have pledged not to appeal against the final decision.

With the withdrawal or dismissal of these lawsuits, there will be no impediments to Austria fulfilling its moral and legal obligation to pay compensation to survivors worldwide for the material losses suffered during the Holocaust era.
Michael Newman

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