NEW YORK, May 17 (JTA) — Austria and seven other countries have agreed on the outlines of a new Austrian fund for Holocaust-era slave and forced laborers.
The U.S. representative at talks held this week in Vienna, Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, praised the planned fund.
But he called on Austria to act swiftly regarding property restitution, which he called “a matter of particular priority for the United States” that would affect relations between the two countries.
The United States has been stepping up pressure on Austria to settle a broad range of Holocaust-era issues.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Eizenstat said Austria’s actions on such issues “will play a crucial role in any decision we might make about future engagement between the U.S. and Austrian governments.”
During the two days of meetings this week in Vienna — which brought together representatives from countries including Hungary, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus — Austria agreed to pay some $395 million to about 150,000 former slave and forced laborers.
The slave laborers were concentration camp prisoners, most of them Jews, whom the Nazis tried to work to death. The forced laborers, imported from Eastern European nations the Nazis overran, worked under better conditions than the slave laborers.
Payments from the fund would range from about $1,300 for forced laborers to about $6,800 for slave laborers.
Many details of the fund still have to be negotiated. Another meeting is scheduled for May 30 in Washington.
The Austrian fund mirrors a similar fund created by Germany that totals some $5.2 billion. Agreed to last December, the German fund still has not been finalized.
Austria has made clear in recent months that it wants to compensate Holocaust-era slave and forced laborers. But it has been far less forthcoming when it comes to paying for property looted from Jews under the Nazis’ so- called Aryanization program.
Jewish groups and lawyers representing Holocaust survivors have responded to what they view as Austrian intransigence with volleys of criticism.
The Claims Conference, which has been spearheading efforts to get Austria to address the property restitution issue, is pleased to see the United States weighing in on the topic.
Eizenstat’s “emphasis on property restitution is absolutely critical,” said Gideon Taylor, the group’s executive vice president. “Its importance cannot be underestimated. Survivors are dying every day, and they deserve to see a measure of justice.”
While in Vienna, Eizenstat met with Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, who said he is “seriously considering” the idea of appointing a special envoy to deal with property restitution issues, according to Eizenstat.
Eizenstat also said Schuessel informed him that Austrian insurance firms plan to establish contact with an international commission dealing with insurance claims dating back to the war years.