The president of the Austrian Jewish community lashed out at the head of the Jewish Agency for calling on Jewish groups to refrain from negotiating Holocaust-era claims with Austria as long as the rightist Freedom Party is part of the government.
“It is up to us to sit down and find a common solution, and not up to politicians of the Jewish Agency to make politics on our behalf,” said the president, Ariel Muzicant.
“The Jewish community of Austria feels that financial restitution should take place if it can be part of a total package,” he said by phone from Vienna. “That should include non-financial issues, such as the Austrian people finally entering into an open discussion about their responsibility for what happened between 1938 and 1945.
“Austria as a country was the first victim [of Hitler], but many Austrians were the first perpetrators. So let’s face history and historical responsibility, and then let’s discuss money.”
A spokesman for Sallai Meridor, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency, said Meridor stood by his statement “as long as the Freedom Party” chaired by Joerg Haider remained part of the Austrian government.
Haider has come under worldwide attack for his statements over the years — for which he has since apologized — expressing sympathy for Nazi policies. Last week, more than 250,000 people protested against his inclusion in the government.
“He is not going to be in the government forever,” the spokesman, Michael Jankelowitz, said of Haider. “Based on public opinion and pressure on the government, there is a possibility the next government” would also deal with Holocaust-era claims. … This is a ploy based on the ideology of Haider to try to show that Jewish people run after money all the time.”
Austria’s vice chancellor, Susanne Riess-Passer, told The Jewish Week that she was “really shocked by this reaction. Our government has done more in two weeks than the other government did in two years. … The prejudices many people have about this government is that we might not deal correctly with the issues of our past. If we do, people will have to understand that their prejudices are not right. Judge this government by what we do and not by what people believe about us.”
She noted that one of the government’s first actions was to appoint the retired president of the Austrian National Bank, Maria Schaumayer, to head a special task force to deal with all slave and forced labor reparations.
“We are willing to have a quick and good resolution of this, something the former government did not do,” said Riess-Passer in a phone interview. “We want to deal with this issue first because of the [advanced] age of the people concerned.”
Once it is resolved, Riess-Passer said the government would seek to resolve all “other questions of restitution for people who suffered from the Nazi regime. We are eager to resolve all issues.”
Meridor gained support for his position from Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who told a meeting of the Middle East Forum in New York last week that he too would not negotiate Holocaust-era claims with Austria because “I don’t want to give them legitimacy. I don’t need their money.”
But Henry Kornfeld of East Norwich, L.I., insisted, “It is not their money [Jews are seeking], it’s our money.”
He said Jews have been waiting since the end of the war for the Austrian government to make restitution to families like his who lost their apartments to the Nazis.
And Roman Kent, vice president of the Conference on Jewish and Material Claims Against Germany and Austria, said it did “not make sense to me” to refuse to negotiate with the Austrian government.
“Does that mean that if there is a murderous government that takes our money, we should leave it with them?” he asked incredulously.
The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, said that in light of the age of survivors, restitution attempts should be made “sooner rather than later. Since our concern is to bring a measure of justice to the survivors, everyday is important.”
Noting that Haider and his coalition partner, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel of the People’s Party, signed a document pledging their opposition to racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, Foxman said these negotiations would be a test of their commitment.
Asked his reaction to those comments, Jankelowitz replied: “They waited 50 years, let them wait another year.”
In another development, a coalition of Jewish groups led by the Jewish Defense Organization is to hold an anti-Haider rally Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan. They then plan to march to the Austrian Mission to the United Nations and call on the ADL, which rents the mission space in its building, to evict them.
Asked about protest, Foxman said: “It’s a free country.”