The Corner

Restitution and the Shame of the Austrians

Most of the countries of Europe have done their best to profiteer from the last world war, with Austria in the lead. The scandal still reverberates. In the time of Hitler, Austrians in SS uuniform were particularly assiduous in sending Jews to the east to be murdered, while other Austrians, bureaucrats and civilians, were particularly assiduous in stealing Jewish property. It is apparently quite easy to rob people you have killed. It was a great shame for some that the war was lost and restitution became an issue. At a cabinet meeting on November 9, 1948, Austria’s Minister of the Interior, Oskar Helmer, had a solution when he said, “I am in favour of dragging out this matter for as long as possible.” Of course this worked. Survivors with claims were ill and old, and anyhow did not know how to proceed.

All was quiet in the thieves’ kitchen, and might have stayed that way except for Count Hubertus Czernin. An investigative journalist of integrity, he campaigned successfully for a law to compel restitution. All honor to him. Of course the Austrian authorities fought a rearguard action. Woman in Gold, a recent movie, describes the extraordinary lengths officials went to in order to keep Klimt’s famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

Stephan Templ is the latest victim of officials who are accessories to crime. Fifty-three years old, he is an architectural journalist who published a book documenting the theft of Jewish property, with the sardonic title Our Vienna: “Aryanization” the Austrian Way. He had an interest. His grandparents had owned a sanatorium im Vienna. When this was expropriated, they committed suicide. Their daughter was one of 39 heirs to receive compensation, in her case just over half a million euros, or $760,000. A Holocaust survivor, she had been sheltered by her elder sister. Sadly, the two sisters fell out. Stephan Templ failed to put his aunt’s name forward as another legitimate claimant for compensation. The state brings a case against him that he deliberately omitted his aunt from the claim so that his mother obtained more than her fair share. The state also argues that it has a right to money arising from the confiscated property. Stephan Templ has been sentenced to three years in prison, cut down on appeal to one year. A presidential pardon is the last recourse left to him.

And oh, the shame of the Austrians.


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