- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

VIENNA, Austria — When Michael Siw’s parents returned to war-battered Vienna in 1948, they were relieved to see 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 went back 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, Mr. Siw said. “When they saw my parents, one of the occupants yelled … ‘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 a half century later, 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 Austria’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 opinion 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 nor its divisive former leader, Joerg Haider, have publicly challenged the restitution efforts.

Mr. Haider’s antiforeigner 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 Mr. 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.

About 65,000 Austrian Jews died in Nazi concentration camps, and 150,000 fled the country or were deported after being forced to pay a “flight tax.”

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

The official pretext for authorities’ shunning responsibility was the Moscow Declaration of 1943, in which the Allies declared the country of Hitler’s birth the first victim of the Nazi dictatorship. In fact, a disproportionately large number of Austrians were 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.

Mr. 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 next day or later to pick up the furniture,” Mr. Siw said. “When the family returned the same afternoon, the apartment was empty except for a chandelier, which couldn’t be removed.”

After battling in court for three years, the family was told that enhancements made to the property after they left far exceeded its original value and that they “should be happy for not being charged the difference,” Mr. Siw said.

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

Others fared little better.

Ruth Freyer, 56, a Vienna resident, 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 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 percent of the proceeds went to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

A year earlier, the government started the Fund for Victims of National Socialism and began paying $6,000 to each of 33,000 Jewish survivors. Officials conceded that the effort was mostly symbolic.

In January 2001, parliament adopted a $500 million package that included money for those payments plus two other restitution funds.

A $150 million fund was set up to pay Jewish survivors $7,000 each for lost tenancy rights, household goods and personal belongings. A $210 million fund compensates both survivors and their heirs for lost insurance policies, bank deposits, real estate, licenses and other rights.

Progress is also being made, albeit slowly, in confronting the broader issue of Austria’s wartime past with books and exhibits paying tribute to Jewish and other victims of the Nazis.

In a 2001 poll, 61 percent of 1,010 youths said they thought it is “very important” to teach students about what happened in Austria under the Third Reich, and 29 percent said it is “important.” The survey had an error margin of three percentage points.

President Thomas Klestil, meeting recently with 80 former Austrian Jews in Vienna at the invitation of the Jewish Welcome Service, stressed such efforts.

He pointed to the 2001 inauguration of a memorial honoring victims of the Holocaust, the dedication of a new synagogue and a major education project in which students are reconstructing the biographies of all Austrian victims.

“The overwhelming majority of Austrians have the good will to draw the appropriate conclusions from the past,” Mr. Klestil assured the visitors. “Our country will not shun confrontation with the past.”

Mr. Siw said he is bitter about what happened to his family, yet he keeps returning to Vienna.

“One always tries to find one’s childhood,” he said.

“The city, its life and culture — that’s something that always pulls me back. Twice or three times a year, I come to ‘fill up’ on culture.”

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