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Austria Legislation Allows Compensation for Nazi Victims

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After decades of intractability on the question of compensation to victims of Nazi crimes, the Austrian Parliament passed legislation Wednesday that will enable Jews forced to flee Austria to receive social security benefits.

The 48th Amendment to the Austrian Social Insurance Law will make it possible for Holocaust survivors who were born in Austria before 1930 — eight years prior to the Anschluss — to claim social security benefits.

Whereas previous legislation had set the cutoff date at 1924, the new amendment will allow thousands of former Austrian citizens to receive an ongoing monthly payment of approximately $400.

The Austrian government estimates that this provision will cost it between 2 billion and 8 billion Austrian schillings, or approximately $165 million to $665 million.

“This is a tremendous breakthrough,” said Israel Miller, president of the Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria. “For years, the Austrians have claimed that they were not part of the Nazi empire, that they were a victim country” and therefore were not responsible for compensation payments.

FAILURE TO COMPENSATE SURVIVORS

But according to Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, such legislative actions hardly fulfill Austria’s obligations to its former citizens.

“This is a positive step, but it doesn’t address the central issue of Austria’s refusal to face up to its role regarding Nazi war crimes, and its failure to adequately compensate survivors of those crimes,” he said.

There were approximately 181,000 Jews in Austria prior to the Nazi Holocaust. Between 60,000 and 80,000 are estimated to have perished.

Although compensation plans were initiated in the mid-1950s, the one-time award of a few thousand dollars was considered inadequate by world Jewish organizations.

“The legislation,” said Steinberg, “simply does not meet the repeated four-decade-old demand of the Jewish world that Austria recognize its responsibility as West Germany has, and as East Germany in principle has said it would.”

The Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria agrees that the Austrian legislation is not comparable to West German reparation payments to Nazi victims, but nevertheless feels that a great step forward has been taken.

“What has emerged out of this effort is that Austrian victims of Nazi persecution will receive acceptable benefits,” said Saul Kagan, executive director of the committee.

“This is an additional measure to provide a degree of compensation to groups of former Austrian Jews who were heretofore not eligible to receive pensions under the Austrian social insurance system as victims of Nazi persecution,” he said.

The WJC has taken various steps in the past to pressure Austria to recognize its responsibility and compensatory obligations. Most recently, it has been the leading force of a movement in Europe to ban Austria from the European Community.

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