In a departure from its previous position, the Austrian government said preliminary talks dealing with stolen property might start shortly on a “technical level,” according to its U.S. ambassador.
“I think we can start talking about it,” Peter Moser said in a phone interview from the Austrian Embassy in Washington. “We’re not in denial [regarding these claims].”
Until now Austria has insisted on resolving slave and forced labor cases before dealing with property claims.
Moser said the impetus to open property talks was an $18 billion federal class-action suit filed in New York late last week by lawyer Edward Fagan on behalf of Holocaust survivors. The suit names as defendants 80 Austrian banks and companies that allegedly conspired with the Nazis to plunder the property of Jews and exploit slave laborers.
“Fagan mixed the Aryanized property and the slave laborers, and he made no mention of the restitution laws,” said Moser. “There have been 45,000 restitution cases since the war and we have given back in kind or settled the cases. He must believe that Austria did nothing.”
But in an interview, Fagan countered: “No one is saying they haven’t made single gesture payments to people. But the [Austrian banks and companies] were part of a greater conspiracy from which they profited and retained the assets. And now we’re saying, ‘Pay up.’ ”
Austria had seven restitution laws from 1946 until 1949, Moser said, and an independent historical commission is reviewing them to see how they were applied and if mistakes were made. The panel is expected to issue a report by the end of the year.
Moser said the bulk of restitution cases were left open with the consent of the World Jewish Congress, but the fact that some cases were resolved “demonstrates that Austria is not starting at the zero hour.”
A report in February by the Austrian government reviewing the restitution steps made to date said about one-third of the 42,000 cases processed after the war were settled, one-fifth were won by the claimant, and one-third were denied or withdrawn. The monetary value of the restored property is not known, it said.
It noted that there was never a resolution of the approximately 70,000 apartments that were stripped from the Jews in 1937.
Property taken from the Jews in Austria in 1938 would be valued today at $10 billion, according to the report — 28 percent in real estate, 15.5 percent businesses, 13 percent equity and the rest unspecified items like jewelry and art. Of the approximately 210,000 Jews living in Austria in 1934, about 110,000 were forced to emigrate, and the Nazis murdered 65,000.
The restitution laws dealt with works of art. About 8,000 heirless works were auctioned off in October 1996, with the proceeds transferred to the Austrian Jewish community.
“Recent research in archival material has shown that works of art whose provenance could not be clearly established and which could have been the property of Nazi victims are still in the possession of the Republic of Austria,” the report said, adding that local museums are searching their collections for such works.
Moser said a draft bill to compensate slave and forced laborers is expected to be adopted by the Austrian parliament before it recesses in July. They would be paid the same amount Germany recently agreed on for its slave and forced laborers. But Moser said Germany would also compensate slave and forced laborers from the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.
Fagan disagreed, however, saying that no such stipulation was made during the German negotiations.
As the debate about Austrian compensation raged, a French commission created to look into the role France played in plundering the property of its Jewish citizens reported that $1.3 billion in assets was stolen during the Holocaust. That included 50,000 businesses.
But the panel said also that 90 percent of the property and money was returned in some form to survivors or their heirs.
Of the bank accounts dormant since 1945, according to the findings, only 5 percent were not returned to their rightful owners or heirs. The commission’s three-year study found that about $294 million in assets was never returned to their rightful owners. It recommended the money be used to create a Holocaust foundation in France.
The 3,000-page report distinguished between the widespread confiscation of Jewish property by the collaborationist Vichy regime and looting by Nazis themselves. It said the Nazis shipped the contents of 30,000 Jewish apartments to Germany, as well as works of art owned by Jewish dealers and collectors.
The commission chairman, former French resistance fighter Jean Matteoli, said he found it “profoundly revolting” that the Vichy government as early as 1940 adopted “measures that went beyond what the Nazis demanded.” That fact, Matteoli told a press conference, “is something we did not want to hide.”
One historian on the commission, Annette Wieviorka, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the extent of the looting was the “most stunning aspect of our findings. … Every Jew in France was affected, from the poorest tailor to the richest art collector.”
About 76,000 Jews — one-fourth the Jewish population of the country — was deported from France to Nazi death camps between 1941 and 1944. Only about 2,500 survived.
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said he found the report “shocking in laying out the extent of French collaboration with the Nazis in the plunder of Jewish assets.” He said the report is one of a number now being prepared on France’s actions during the Holocaust.
Although virtually all of the looted Jewish assets were returned or compensated for after the war, Steinberg said the issue of moral restitution has yet to be addressed.
“Clearly we are talking in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, adding that his organization is working with the Drai Commission to determine how restitution should be made.
“Works of art are still outstanding,” Steinberg said, “and there is a problem with insurance companies that are not cooperating” in making public their dormant accounts from the Holocaust era.