Behind the Headlines: Holocaust Survivors Welcome Payments from Austrian Fund

Nearly one year after the Austrian government began offering compensation of Holocaust survivors, some 10,000 people from around the world have applied for the one-time payment.

According to some of the recipients, the $7,000 payments was a welcome gesture.

“This money will make our life a bit easier,” Saul Gottlieb of Florida wrote to the Austrian National Fund.

“My wife and myself are survivors of the concentrations camp Bergen-Belsen, and we do not hold the children responsible for the sins of their fathers,” the 91- year-old Gottlieb wrote.

“Vienna is and stays my home city and I will never forget my wonderful youth there, which was unfortunately brutally interrupted.”

Gottlieb is among the 2,200 people who have already received the payment since the fund was created by the Austrian Parliament in June 1995, said Hanna Lessing-Askapa, the fund’s general secretary.

The fund, officially knows as the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for the Victims of National Socialism, was created as a gesture toward the victims of the Nazi regime in connection with the 50th anniversary of the re- establishment of the republic.

“We are aware of the fact that the immeasurable human suffering inflicted upon you, the loss of home and health is irreparable, but this is one way of trying to build a human bridge to the surviving victims,” the president of the Austrian Parliament, Dr. Heinz Fischer, wrote in his letter to potential applicants.

According to a news release from the Austrian government last year, beneficiaries of the fund include people who were “persecuted by the Nazi regime out of political, racial, religious or ethnic reasons; because of their sexual orientation; or [because of] their disabilities.”

Lessing-Askapa said her office expects to receive a total of 20,000 applications and hopes to process 8,000 of them annually.

Of the 10,000 received so far, she added, “roughly 7,100 came from the United States, followed by 3,600 from Israel, 3,000 within Austria and 2,600 from the U.K.”

Among the letters she shows a visitor are some from Haiti, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Lessing-Askapa, whose father escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to Israel, was quick to concede the limitations of the fund’s goals.

“We are 50 years too late,” she said. “And we know that his amount can only symbolize a modest gesture by the Austrian republic. The suffering imposed on these people can neither be reserved nor repaired in any way.”

Nonetheless, as the letters she displayed attested, the fund’s efforts had been received warmly by a number of the recipients.

“Never before has we received such a nice letter from an Austrian authority,” George Weissberg wrote from England. “It’s a reconciling gesture. We are happy that you, dear Mrs. Lessing, were spared to go through those very dark years.”

By contrast, Jewish officials in New York who are closely involved in the issue of making restitution to Holocaust survivors were critical of the Austrian government’s one-time payment, describing it as too little, too late.

“Before there was nothing” paid by Austria, said one such official. “Now it’s not enough and late.”

Paul Grosz, president of the approximately 8,000 members of the Austrian Jewish community, was also concerned that what he described as the “gesture” of the Austrian government was coming too late for many Holocaust survivors.

Fearing that many of the older applicants will not live to see their cases settled, he cited a case from his own family.

“My mother-in-law was born in 1900 and she applied. A few months later she died.” Grosz said, nothing that the right to the payment was voided by her death.

Grosz, who along with fischer is a member of the board of trustees overseeing the fund, said the board would likely seek a change of the fund’s rules to allow payments to be inherited by surviving family members.

In an effort to give priority to the claims of elderly applicants, Lessing- Askapa said 32 people older than 100 were among the fund’s first recipients.

Among them was Miriam Kaplan from Canada. Born in 1981, she wrote to the fund’s office: “We were so happy to receive your questionnaire. It feels so good not to be forgotten altogether by the country you were born in. It gave me a sense of belonging to my irreplaceable home.”

Although those eligible for the payment could simply mail in their applications, Lessing-Askapa said many people nonetheless chose to visit the fund’s office in Vienna.

People “just want to talk to somebody after having been silent for so long,” Lessing-Askapa said. “Some start to tell their story of suffering in camps. They simply unload their burden here.

“We had men here who broke out in tears for the first time in 50 years.”

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