Jun 2007 Journal

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Let’s try to be fair to the Austrians (however difficult it may be)

When I wrote about my love/hate relationship with Vienna some months ago, many of you decided to attack me. ‘How can you have a love/hate relationship with a city whose citizens threw you and your family out?’, I was asked in the letters pages of the AJR Journal. ‘The relationship must be one of hate’, a reader wrote. ‘Visiting Vienna makes you and your family revolting’, someone else claimed. Well, I don’t hate Vienna and I don’t hate Austria and I think Hannah Lessing, a Jew, who is Secretary General of the National Fund and the General Settlement Fund, is doing a good job on our behalf!

There is absolutely no doubt that the Austrians were duplicitous for many years, claiming that they had been attacked by Germany and that they were therefore not liable to pay any restitution to Austrian Holocaust survivors. This, they said, was the duty of the Germans. Conveniently, they tried to sweep under the carpet the fact that at the Anschluss the Germans were welcomed in with open arms. But I said I would be fair to the Austrians so I must mention that their chancellor at the time, Kurt von Schuschnigg, was not a Nazi and, indeed, was imprisoned by them.

The Claims Conference reached an impasse with the Austrians after the war because Austria was claiming it had been a Nazi-occupied country. Surprisingly, the Austrians received some support for this claim from both the United States and Israel. The Americans saw Austria as an important Cold-War buffer state. The Israelis saw it as an important transit point for Jews fleeing the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and they did not want to jeopardise this situation. So it is easy to understand why the Austrians did not own up to their crimes. Also, one has to wonder whether the Claims Conference put enough pressure on them to admit their guilt.
Much later, in 1986, there came the Waldheim affair: when Kurt Waldheim was seeking the Austrian presidency it was revealed that he had concealed the fact that he had been an officer in the German army. Fortunately, this created an environment in which Austria’s links to its Nazi past were discussed and in which the claims of victims could be pursued.

Later still, in 1991, Jörg Haider, of the right-wing Freedom Party, praised the Nazis during a debate in parliament. This was too much for Austrian Chancellor Vranitsky to accept, so he decided it was time to issue an apology. ‘We own up to all the facts of our history and to the deeds of all parts of our people. We must apologise for the evil.’ (It was, of course, around this time that Austria applied for, and received, membership of the EU, so perhaps Vranitsky had a hidden agenda!)

It was now up to the Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria (CJCA) to negotiate the best deal it could. Sadly, I feel it let us down. It was agreed that no major compensation would be paid out until there was legal peace between Austria and its victims. Why then did they not put pressure on the lawyers in the United States and their clients to halt their class actions? (The Altmann and Whiteman cases went on and on until, eventually, one was settled and the other dropped.) Why did the CJCA agree to such paltry sums of money in compensation for our huge losses? The General Settlement Fund was granted $210 million to be shared between 20,000 claimants. Bank Austria (Creditanstalt) was allowed to get away with paying only $40 million in compensation. To receive my pension, I had, first, to pay the equivalent of two years’ pension into a special Austrian pension fund. Was that fair? Why was Ariel Muzicant, the President of the Austrian Jewish community, given precedence over us as to when the money from the fund was to be received, and why was he allowed - with our money but without our knowledge - to rebuild the Hakoah sports stadium in Vienna? It was also, seemingly, agreed that money could be taken for the pet projects of members of the World Jewish Congress - like the building of a Yiddish theatre in Tel Aviv. Why?

In 2001 an agreement was concluded between the CJCA and the Austrian government in which benefits of $480 million were to be paid to Austrian survivors. How was this diminished to $210 million? Why was it agreed that we should be paid in dollars? Remember, it is now almost two dollars to the pound. The CJCA was not to know this but, had they acted faster, particular with regard to ‘legal peace’, we would all have been far better off. Rabbi Israel Miller, one of the leaders of the Claims Conference, confirmed that the Conference ‘had not devoted enough time or effort to Austria’. Gideon Taylor, one of its current leaders, agreed that perhaps it was wrong that Rabbi Israel Singer, who replaced Rabbi Miller after his death and who was also an official of the World Jewish Congress, should have stated that ‘survivors have not the right to decide all questions about funds restored to the Jewish people from the Holocaust’.

So, is it entirely the fault of the Austrians (or Hannah Lessing) that we are all still waiting for our compensation from the General Settlement Fund? Let’s be fair: let’s admit it isn’t!

Peter Philips

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