TORONTO (Jun. 2)
Israelis, Austrian Jews and even a U.S. senator have asked Austrian officials during the past decade to return to Jewish hands a large archival collection that once belonged to the Jewish communities of the easternmost province of Austria.
Despite these efforts, however, the archives chronicling life in Burgenland remain in an Austrian archive.
According to Hadassah Assouline, director of the Jerusalem-based Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, which has one of the most extensive collections of documents pertaining to the Jews of the Diaspora, the disputed collection occupies more than 120 feet of shelf space in a regional archives in the Austrian city of Eisenstadt.
Assouline made an extensive inventory of its contents in 1988.
The material, which dates from the late 17th to the 20th century, includes Jewish communal record books and burial society records, as well as school, military and tax lists.
Also included are rabbinical correspondence and numerous letters between Jewish communal figures and the Esterhazy family of Eisenstadt, the long-standing patrons and protectors of Burgenland’s Jews.
Assouline maintains that the collection, which Austrian archivists salvaged from the Nazis, is “stolen Jewish property.”
“This is property belonging to the Jews of Burgenland, and under normal circumstances it never would have left their possession,” she says.
The Austrian government has maintained that the issue is a regional, not a federal matter, and officials of the regional archives in Eisenstadt have asserted that they cannot legally send the material to Israel.
Under Austrian law, they explained, material in the possession of a national or provincial archive cannot legally be given to someone outside the country.
Burgenland, famed for its well-known “seven communities” with their illustrious rabbis and yeshivas, was an important center of Austro-Hungarian Jewish life from about 1690 until September 1938, when the Nazis expelled the Jews and declared 10 cities, including Eisenstadt, to be “Judenrein,” or rid of Jews.
When the Burgenland collection resurfaced after the war in a regional archives in Eisenstadt, the Jewish community in Vienna — legal heir to all Jewish communities of Austria — requested its return, but to no avail.
A request from an organization of Burgenland Jews in Israel was equally unsuccessful.
Since the early 1980s, Assouline has persuaded successive Israeli ambassadors to Austria to raise the matter with the Austrians.
In 1986, the chief of the Burgenland archives agreed to microfilm much of the collection and ship it to Jerusalem on an open-ended “long-term loan.”
Microfilming occurred in 1994, but the archives subsequently refused to lend the materials as agreed.
In a bid to break the bureaucratic logjam, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) wrote to the Austrian Embassy in Washington last December, asking for help “to bring this matter to a satisfactory close.”
His office has not yet received a reply.
Assouline remains adamant that the collection is culturally valuable and must eventually be returned to the Jewish people.
“This material chronicles a very important chapter of our history,” she says. “It’s no less valuable than bank accounts, buildings, art, or any other type of stolen Jewish property. It must be returned.”