In one of his first acts after being sworn in as chancellor of the controversial new government in Austria, Wolfgang Schuessel faxed a letter to the World Jewish Congress in New York promising to move ahead immediately to resolve all outstanding Holocaust-era claims, The Jewish Week has learned.
The pledge came just a day after Schuessel and his coalition partner, Joerg Haider of the rightist Freedom Party, signed a declaration in which they affirmed that “Austria accepts her responsibility arising out of the tragic history of the 20th century and the horrendous crimes of the National Socialist regime. Our country is facing up to the light and dark sides of its past and to the deeds of all Austrians, good and evil, as its responsibility.”
Deputy Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer of the Freedom Party said the government appointed this week Maria Schaumayer as emissary to resolve all Jewish reparations issues and that such a resolution would come “within a few months.”
“The former government held talks but never did anything,” Riess-Passer told The Jewish Week in a phone interview from Vienna.
Schaumayer, a businesswoman, is the retired president of the Austrian National Bank.
Riess-Passer said that in dealing with reparation issues, she is fulfilling a pledge she and Haider made last month to a class-action lawyer for about 20,000 Holocaust-era slave and forced laborers — Jews and non-Jews — from Poland who were worked in concentration camps and factories in Austria.
“He asked if we could help him because for one year the government had been postponing this issue,” she said. “We said that if we formed a government, we would make it part of our coalition government. The day the coalition was formed, I phoned him and said we wrote this into our program.”
The lawyer, Andre Remin, said he welcomed Riess-Passer’s call and that “in this matter, the [new government] is a blessing in disguise.”
He was referring to criticism of Haider for comments minimizing the policies of the Nazis and for his anti-immigrant statements.
Opposition to Haider’s party after it joined a coalition government with the People’s Party last Friday resulted in Israel withdrawing its ambassador to Vienna and the United States calling home its ambassador for consultations.
Austria’s fellow members of the European Union also downgraded their diplomatic relations with Austria, there were calls for a tourist boycott of the country and Israeli Interior Minister Natan Sharansky announced that Haider was banned from entering his country. Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin reportedly accused Schuessel of “getting into bed with the devil.”
In New York, the state Senate passed a resolution calling on the governor and comptroller to review all business dealings with Austria as a first step toward economic sanctions. And demonstrators outside the Austrian Consulate in New York Monday denounced Haider as “Waldheim’s spiritual successor,” referring to former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who was elected in the mid-1980s despite his Nazi past.
Riess-Passer bristled when she heard Beilin’s remark, saying it was “really stupid.”
“I’m sorry to say that,” she said, “but we are a party that had 27 percent of the vote and yet the whole world is upset.”
Haider himself promised in a television interview on Sunday that the new government would seek to redress the grievances of Holocaust victims.
“Where we have inflicted great injustice on our Jewish fellow citizens or wiped out their families, we must take pertinent measures,” he said.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last week appointed Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat to monitor a resolution of all Austrian Holocaust-era claims.
Remin said that if the new Austrian government fulfilled its commitment, it would be an about-face from the government of former Social Democrat Chancellor Viktor Klima, “who always gave us excuses.”
“He said he had to wait for the elections in October 1999, and then he said he had to wait until the end of negotiations between Germany and the United States. He wanted to gain as much time as possible because the longer he waited, the fewer he had [to compensate],” the lawyer said. “In Poland, approximately 350 [Holocaust-era survivors] die every day, so to wait means to gain money.”
Remin estimated that there are about 100,000 people from five countries alive today who were forced to perform slave and forced labor during the Holocaust.
Edward Fagan, a class-action lawyer who has suits pending regarding Aryanization and slave labor in Austria, also welcomed the overtures of the new Austrian government.
“It would be an opportunity for the government to demonstrate its true colors — whether it intends to abide by human rights and resolve Holocaust reparations issues,” he said. “For Haider this would be an enormous political coup. He could say that it was claimed I’m a racist and one of the first things I’m doing is establishing a fund to benefit human rights’ victims, that we’re putting our money where our mouths are.”
But at the same time, Fagan said, in fulfilling the “obligation to get compensation for the victims, we are lending credibility to a government that is comprised of someone who some want to isolate. A settlement would give Haider a level of respectability.”
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said that in addition to the claims of slave and forced laborers, Austria must also deal with compensation to Jews and their heirs who rented 70,000 apartments in Vienna alone that were confiscated during the Holocaust. He said these families paid an initial fee on an average of $20,000 for the right to rent those apartments, a total of $1.4 million in today’s valuation.
In addition, Austria has pledged to return all looted works of art, many of them found on the walls of its museums and public buildings. Steinberg said there are still “hundreds if not thousands of artwork” that have yet to be returned. And, he said, there are outstanding claims against numerous Austrian banks.
To date, only one bank, Austria-Creditanstalt, has paid restitution claims.
An independent commission chaired by Robert Knight and established to research Austria’s role during the Holocaust has completed its report and Riess-Passer said it is expected to be released soon. Remin said he believed the report would be helpful in settling the claims because it “will have figures that can’t be denied.”