Austria always will have a special place in the life and near extermination of European Jewry. It was here in Vienna that the notion of a Jewish homeland was born in 1896 when journalist Theodor Herzl published his historic booklet, The Jewish State. And it was here in March 1938 that Adolf Hitler first expanded the Third Reich beyond Germany's borders by marching triumphantly into Vienna to broad public acclaim.
The first act of Hitler's Anschluss (the union of Austria and Germany) was to strip Austria's 200,000 Jews of their citizenship, jobs and property. More than 65,000 Austrian Jews perished in German death camps and ghettoes. The rest were expelled. Sixty-four years later, Austria has just 7,000 Jews. To this day, most never have received compensation nor even recognition of the horrors they suffered under the Third Reich.
The failure of postwar Austrian governments to acknowledge the country's complicity in the Holocaust prompted the president of the Austrian Jewish Community, Dr. Ariel Muzicant, to press the government to establish a "Historical Commission" to reexamine Austria's past. "It is important that Austria finally tries to live up to its past, not just what happened from 1938-1945, which is pretty well known, but to what didn't happen after 1945, and the enormous amount of Jewish property that was never returned or compensated," Muzicant tells INSIGHT in Vienna.
On July 4, that commission released a damning preliminary report. Despite no fewer than seven laws passed since 1945 that called for limited restitution of property stolen from Austria's Jews, it determined that very little ever was returned. The main reason, commission spokeswoman Eva Blimlinger tells INSIGHT, was simple and far-reaching: "Austria did not want to admit any wrongdoing during the war." Postwar governments portrayed Austria as a "victim" of Nazi evil, not as the willing partner that it was, but actively discouraged exiled Jews from returning. So did the World Jewish Committee, which was convinced anti-Semitism remained rank in Austria even after the war.
Now the Historical Commission is attempting to set the record straight. It will issue a final report this autumn that will include a full inventory of "Aryanized" property (that is, property belonging to Jews stolen by the Nazis) that for the first time will place a monetary value on the theft. "Our own historians estimate the total amount of property seized from Austria's Jews at roughly $14 billion, of which 60 percent was never returned and never compensated," Muzicant says. "This estimate includes businesses, homes, money, shares, insurance policies, leases, household goods, art, silver and gold, jewelry, books. We're talking about 25 different categories."
But Muzicant doubts the Historical Commission will venture beyond the properties stolen from Jews that today belong to the state, which he believes constitutes somewhere between 2 percent and 6 percent of the total that was seized from Austria's Jews. During the last 18 months journalists have roamed through newly opened Austrian state archives. Among the stolen businesses they identified are factories, department stores, hotels, jewelry stores and national monuments, including the Ferris wheel on the Prater along the Danube in Vienna.
So widespread was the theft organized by the Nazis that a significant portion of Vienna's postwar economy even today has been built from stolen property. And yet the current owners appear oblivious. "They say nothing about this" Muzicant tells INSIGHT.
That could all change this autumn--at least in theory. The growing tide of anti-Semitism once again sweeping across Europe could force Muzicant and the politicians who must implement the findings of the Historical Commission to proceed warily, or even abandon restitution, for fear of arousing a popular backlash. "This is not new," Muzicant says. "They have always accused us of being greedy." Negotiations with the government and with private companies are under way, he adds. "It's still an open fight. Many things have been achieved, but many things are ongoing."
Nearly half of Austria's 200,000 Jews were forced to emigrate between 1938 and 1941, before the massive deportations to the death camps began. Some, such as Georg Haber and his father, who owned a Viennese department store, were lucky.
"My father and his brothers owned an orange plantation in Palestine" Haber tells INSIGHT. "Because of this, they were able to emigrate before the deportations began." Still, Haber says his father twice was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1938-39. "They eventually forced him to sign a paper admitting that he owed taxes for an amount equivalent to the value of his stores. This is how they would later claim they had taken his property legally."
Haber was 9 years old when his parents returned to Vienna from Palestine in 1947. "With the postwar restitution laws, my father could only get back one of his stores, in the building he owned." And even then, Haber recalls, his father had to negotiate with the new "owners"--a group of employees who had formed a secret Nazi Party cell at his father's company between 1934 and 1938, when the party was illegal. "Officially, the store was taken over by the Aryanization branch of the Nazi Party and sold to Nazi Party members, who then claimed they had bought it legally. But, in fact, my father knew the new `owners' very well. They were his former employees."
Haber's father agreed to drop his claims to his other properties and not to denounce the former employees as Nazis in exchange for quickly receiving one store that he could build up in the postwar boom years. But Haber and his family were among the lucky ones. Few Jews who were forced by the Nazis to emigrate ever returned to Austria.
"Why should Jews return?" asks Muzicant. "According to Austrian law, Jews had between one and three years to reclaim their property after the war. But in 1945, most of these Jews either had been killed or were in Palestine, Australia, Argentina--wherever they could run to save their lives. Others had just been liberated from the camps and were poor, sick and demoralized. They didn't have the money to come back, hire lawyers and start a long legal process."
But that is what the postwar Austrian government required. "They said, `You must come back and prove ownership in court in order to reclaim property. Even for those who went back and tried, the courts, the judges, everyone was against them," says Muzicant. Indeed, this is precisely what the Historical Commission found in the reports released on July 4.
In the disembodied language of the official historians, it is hard to fathom the fear and frustration of Austria's Jews, freshly liberated from the death camps or living in exile. To understand those fears, one must speak to the survivors. Leon Zelman, who was liberated from Auschwitz by the Americans in 1945, has spent most of the last 40 years trying to convince Austrian Jews to return. But he still recalls the fear and the nightmares of those early years, when he says Jews were never quite sure the Nazi era truly was over.
While Zelman was in a displaced-persons camp in 1945 along with other survivors from the death camps, some Austrians were campaigning against the Jews. "The Salzburger Daily accused the Jews of getting fat and lazy, lying around while the Austrian population starved," he recalls. "Next to our camp was a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp. People belonging to the Wehrmacht and the SS were interned there. They no longer wore their swastikas, but they still wore uniforms. The close proximity of those uniforms, of those who were wearing these uniforms, was unbearable to us." Eventually, Zelman tells INSIGHT, he led a hunger strike that prompted the Americans to move the POWs.
Zelman spent the first Christmas after the war with an Austrian girlfriend and her Christian family. He still recalls being challenged by a drunken uncle at dinner. "We did good work there, kicked the Jews' asses, really warmed them up nicely, don't you think?" He fled the dinner and resolved never to see the girlfriend again. Such, he says, was the climate in postwar Vienna. Zelman has recounted many of these stories in a memoir, After Survival, translated into English in 1998 and published by Holmes & Meier in New York.
Austria's political parties continued to court the votes of former Nazis. Early Socialist Party governments included former Nazis as Cabinet ministers. In 1986, former Wehrmacht officer Kurt Waldheim was elected Austria's president on a platform that implicitly excused Austrians from accusations of war crimes.
Today, Freedom Party leader Jorg Haider is not alone among those trying to rehabilitate SS officers and praise the "orderly" employment policy of the Nazis. On July 4, just as Freedom Party government ministers were celebrating U.S. independence at the official residence of U.S. Ambassador Lyons Brown, a top Freedom Party parliamentarian, Ewald Stadler, publicly compared the U.S. troops occupying Austria after World War II to the Nazis.
But a new wrinkle appeared when Stadler publicly was rebuked by Freedom Party Deputy General Secretary Peter Sichrovsky, who tells INSIGHT that his party's days of Nazi apologetics are over. "We have a new generation of leaders who have more liberal ideas," Sichrovsky says. "They are not the typical postwar generation that grew up with parents heavily involved with the Nazis. The Freedom Party has changed."
Jewish-community leader Muzicant scoffs at the notion. "This is nonsense. Sichrovsky is Jewish. If that is what he believes, how can he be in a party with such people? There are dozens like Stadler in the Freedom Party saying these things loudly."
The U.S. Embassy in Vienna is monitoring anti-Semitic and anti-American statements. "But we also watch what people do in their ministerial and government duties, and so far we've not been alarmed by how the Freedom Party has behaved," an embassy spokesman says. Much more troubling, the spokesman adds, were recent trips to Baghdad by Haider, billed as "humanitarian" missions. Haider's apparent admiration for Saddam Hussein is yet another area where one is reminded that the Nazis were National Socialists. Freedom Party Secretary General Karl Schweizer sits on the board of the Society for Austro-Arab Relations, which is run by a Socialist, Fritz Eddlinger.
Eddlinger recently accused a prominent Jewish leader of being an agent of the Israeli government, a frequent charge of anti-Semites who claim there is a world Jewish conspiracy. "He wrote me about `my' prime minister, Ariel Sharon" Victor Wagner, who heads the local chapter of B'nai B'rith, tells INSIGHT. "So now I have to give up my Austrian nationality just because I am a Jew?"
In an interview with INSIGHT, Eddlinger accuses Israeli Prime Minister Sharon of "war crimes" and says the Israeli government has engaged in "ethnic cleansing" since 1948 when, in fact, Israel is the only state in the Middle East to grant full democratic rights to its Arab citizens. He also acknowledges that, like Haider, he was involved in efforts to bring "humanitarian relief supplies" to Iraq and had just returned from negotiations with the United Nations in New York City over a $400,000 shipment that was being blocked by the United States.
Austria's peculiar contradictions are not about to disappear. "When you look at newsreels of people waving from balconies as Hitler made his triumphal entry into Vienna in 1938, don't tell me the Austrians had nothing to do with National Socialism" a Western diplomat tells INSIGT. "In the late 1980s, the Austrian government put up a plaque on the main prison in Vienna commemorating the beheading of 1,000 people between 1938-1945 because of their race or religion. Beheaded, mind you, not shot or hanged."
Vienna once again has become a cosmopolitan center, as it was in the 1930s. And yet, says Holocaust survivor Zelman, "it has taken the Viennese decades to realize what they lost in 1938. It was not just the Jews, it was a way of life."
RELATED ARTICLE: Museum profits from stolen masterpieces.
Plundered art is another area Austria's Historical Commission will address when it issues its final report this autumn. For decades, Austrian governments have maintained that art stolen by the Nazis was collected and returned after the war. But since 1998, when two paintings by Egon Schiele were seized while on loan to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Austrian government has been forced to admit that there may have been exceptions.
The most high-profile case involves five modern masterpieces by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), founder of the Secessionist movement in 1897. The Austrian Gallery, which currently displays the paintings at Vienna's Belvedere Palace, maintains that it legally acquired them after the war. But heirs to sugar magnate and art collector Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, who commissioned two portraits from the artist and purchased several landscapes, now are suing the Austrian government in federal court in Los Angeles to get them returned.
The story of the Bloch-Bauer Klimts is in many ways the story of modern Austria. In 1938, when the Nazis took over Austria, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer fled for his life to Switzerland, leaving behind his business, his chateaux and his magnificent art collection. His possessions promptly were seized by the Nazis. Some of the art was transferred to Germany for Adolf Hitler's private collection. A fabulous diamond necklace was sent to Hermann Goring as a present for his wife. The five Klimts were transferred to the Austrian Gallery in 1941 by a Nazi lawyer named Erich Fhrer, who signed the letter of transfer, "Hell Hitler."
Bloch-Bauer died penniless in exile in 1945. His heirs, Maria Altmann and her brother Robert, hired lawyers in Vienna to negotiate the return of the family property with the Austrian government, but met opposition at every turn. When the case was revived in 1999, the Austrian government demanded that Maria Altmann, then 84 and working as a clothes designer in California, post a half-million-dollar bond before she could bring the case before a judge.
INSIGHT visited the Austrian National Gallery, where the two stunning portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer figure prominently in the Klimt exhibition rooms. Also present are the three Klimt landscapes purchased by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. All five paintings bear the label, "Bequest of Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer," although it now is clear that no such bequest ever was made.
So why is the Austrian government dragging its feet? One reason is the paintings themselves. The Bloch-Bauer portraits and landscapes were no ordinary Klimts. With the exception of The Kiss, which hangs in the same room, the Bloch-Bauer paintings are the most famous and most frequently reproduced of Klimt's work. The museum guide notes that they "are unsurpassed for their perfection and finesse and were highly paid treasures even at the time of their creation."
And the national gallery continues to exploit the paintings shamelessly. In the Belvedere Museum shop, you can buy matted miniatures of the Adele Bloch-Bauer portraits bearing the Austrian Gallery stamp, poster-sized reproductions, embossed playing cards, pillboxes, scarves, notebooks, bookmarks and even refrigerator magnets. The paintings also are reproduced in dozens of art books devoted to Klimt's work. And not a penny of the proceeds goes to the family that lost everything during the Holocaust.
Family lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg has created a Website devoted to the case, www. Adele.at, which includes an incredible narrative of how the paintings were stolen by the Nazis and again by the Austrian government at the end of World War II. Now, writes Schoenberg, the paintings are being stolen again "by a flagrant perversion of the law."
KENNETH R. TIMMERMAN IS A SENIOR WRITER FOR Insight MAGAZINE.…