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Austria Still Coming to Grips With Nazi Past

The nation has been criticized for its unwillingness to compensate Holocaust victims after World War II.

June 22, 2003|ROLAND PRINZ | Associated Press Writer

VIENNA — When Michael Siw's parents returned to war-battered Vienna in 1948, they were relieved to see that their home had survived the city's heavy bombing by the Allies.

But after a bruising and failed three-year court battle to recover their apartment and a family inheritance, including a factory, they returned to Israel. Depressed and disgusted by crude anti-Semitism and humiliated by officials and neighbors alike, they never returned.

"They tried to get their property back," but found it occupied by new tenants, Siw said. "When they saw my parents, one of the occupants yelled: 'Jesus Christ! You haven't been gassed?' "

Thousands of other Holocaust survivors met with similar resistance in futile attempts to reclaim ownership of property plundered during World War II. More than 50 years critics say, Austria has a long way to go in making restitution and coming to grips with its Nazi past.

A new report by 160 historians and researchers criticizes the Alpine country's postwar governments for their unwillingness to indemnify Holocaust victims, saying Austria acted "often halfheartedly."

Serious restitution efforts were initiated only in the mid-1980s. Earlier attempts, hampered by a series of often ambiguous laws, "were all too often made on the basis of outside pressure, especially from the Western allies," said the 14,000-page government-commissioned report.

Anti-Semitism appears to be abating, with polls saying such sentiments have dropped by half since 1991, when a quarter of survey participants expressed anti-Jewish feelings. Not even the far-right Freedom Party or its divisive former leader, Joerg Haider, have publicly challenged the restitution efforts.

Haider's anti-foreigner stance and praise of some of Adolf Hitler's policies led the European Union to temporarily impose sanctions on Austria after the Freedom Party joined the government in 2000. Israel withdrew its ambassador in protest and has yet to fill the post, even though Haider no longer leads the party and its influence has dwindled.

Looting of Jewish property started immediately after German troops entered Austria in March 1938, often to a warm welcome from Austrians. The Nazi catchword was "Arisierung" -- the "Aryanization" of Jewish houses, apartments, land and artworks.

Some 65,000 Austrian Jews died in Nazi concentration camps, while 150,000 more fled the country or were deported after paying a "flight tax."

Only relatively recently have Austrians begun to publicly acknowledge their country's complicity.

The official pretext for authorities' shunning of responsibility was the Moscow Declaration of 1943, in which the Allies declared the country of Hitler's birth as the first victim of the Nazi dictatorship. In fact, a large number of Austrians had been directly involved in the Nazi death machinery.

It wasn't until 1991 that Franz Vranitzky became the first Austrian chancellor to declare in Parliament that Austrians were not only victims but also perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Jewish survivors returning to Austria in the immediate postwar years found their houses and apartments occupied, their bank accounts depleted, and their commercial holdings in other people's hands. Few managed to recover their property.

Siw's family fled the Nazis in the 1930s for British-ruled Palestine, later to become Israel. He is now 60, a retired airline executive living in Tel Aviv.

Sitting in a Viennese coffeehouse, he described how his parents came back to their old apartment to be told by the people squatting there that they had nowhere else to go and wouldn't leave without a court order.

"They urged my parents to come again [the] next day or later to pick up the furniture," Siw said. "When the family returned the same afternoon, the apartment was empty."

After a three-year court battle, , the family was told that enhancements made to the property after they left exceeded its original value and they "should be happy for not being charged the difference," Siw said.

"That was when they packed up and left," he said.

Others fared little better.

Ruth Freyer, 56, of Vienna said her grandfather, who had been quite wealthy, managed to get his house back after waiting out the war in Israel. "But all his other property -- the valuables, chandeliers, silverware and paintings -- were all gone."

The thefts were an added insult. Before the Nazis let him leave Austria in 1939, she said, "Grandfather was forced to pay 28,000 reichsmarks" -- roughly $126,000 in today's terms.

Systematic restitution efforts didn't begin until 1985, when Parliament approved a law obliging the state to auction off paintings, artworks and other unclaimed valuables. That auction wasn't held until 1996, when the sale of 8,000 items generated more than $14.5 million. Nearly 90% of the proceeds went to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

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