Tuesday, January 16, 2001

VIENNA, Austria Negotiators are scrambling to wrap up a deal to compensate Jews who lost property under Nazi rule, fearing the departure of Clinton administration negotiator Stuart Eizenstat after Saturday may doom the talks.

Meetings today and tomorrow in Washington may offer the best chance for successful negotiations, began ironically by a conservative Austrian government castigated for supposedly pro-Nazi remarks by its ally, Joerg Haider.

Mr. Eizenstat, the U.S. deputy Treasury secretary, said after two days of talks last week in Vienna that “much hard work remains, and all parties need to show continued flexibility, [but] I believe that for the first time, an agreement is within our reach.”

The government is offering nearly $500 million to compensate thousands of Jews who lost their homes, businesses and other personal property in Austria after Adolf Hitler annexed the country in 1938.

Of that amount, $262 million would be used to provide compensation and social-security benefits for those who survived the Holocaust. The remaining $210 million would primarily compensate the heirs of those who lost property, affecting an estimated 60,000 households.

While Jewish leaders are satisfied with the compensation for survivors, they say more must be done in three areas: These are the return of property still in government hands, compensation for communal property that was destroyed or expropriated such as synagogues, and a statement of apology from Austrian officials.

“I see no possibility to accept the deal [as proposed] because we’ll have lawsuits all over the place,” said Ariel Muzicant, head of Vienna’s Jewish community. It is precisely the threat of lawsuits in U.S. courts that makes Mr. Eizenstat’s participation in the talks essential.

Mr. Muzicant said victims who lost property worth $1 million under Nazi rule would get only $260 in compensation under the present offer.

“This is a real problem,” he said. “I’ve been telling [the government] constantly they are antagonizing the victims even worse, and especially the heirs, and nobody is listening to me.

“I understand the whole thing is symbolic anyway, but if even a symbolic measure is a slap in the face, you don’t turn the other cheek, you hit back.”

Austria’s chief negotiator, Ernst Sucharipa, said he believes the sides must find common ground in Washington this week if there is to be a deal. “If we further delay, everything will disassemble again.”

While Mr. Sucharipa believes negotiations would continue under the incoming Bush administration, “Eizenstat is the one and only person in the universe who has the background on this thing and the authority to talk to everybody.”

Just talking about compensation is a big step forward for the Austrians, who long avoided the subject. For decades, they claimed they were Hitler’s first victims, although enthusiastic crowds welcomed the arrival of German troops.

Under Nazi rule, Austria’s Jewish community of some 180,000 people lost an estimated 26,000 companies, along with real estate and personal effects. The American Jewish Congress estimated those losses at $1.25 billion more than $10 billion in today’s terms.

It wasn’t until 1993, during a visit to Israel, that then-Chancellor Franz Vranitzky acknowledged Austria’s role in the Holocaust. Since 1995, about 25,000 Holocaust survivors have received payments of about $7,000 each.

But it was only after the conservative Austrian People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party took office in February that the issue was brought to the bargaining table.

Mr. Haider, the former Freedom Party leader, has been widely criticized for statements seen as sympathetic to certain Nazi policies, and for six months Austria was ostracized by its European Union partners for giving the Freedom Party a role in government.

One of the government’s first acts was to establish a special department to work out a compensation plan for slave laborers. Since then, a $380 million fund has been established to compensate those who were forced to toil for the Nazis.

Once that was in the works, Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel bowed to U.S. government requests and appointed Mr. Sucharipa in May to deal with the claims of Jews who had lost their property under the Nazis.

Mr. Sucharipa said U.S. participation in the negotiations is vital because only the United States “can deliver legal peace,” meaning no further claims could be made in American courts.

If an agreement is reached “it speaks volumes to the world about where Austria is at in the 21st century,” Mr. Eizenstat said.

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