Jewish leader to hold Austria’s feet to fire

NEW YORK, Sept. 14 (JTA) — In February, Austria announced plans to rapidly resolve all Holocaust restitution claims against it.

Vienna’s enthusiasm for settling these claims came days after the European Union imposed sanctions against Austria for including a far-right party in its new government.

Several American Jewish leaders rejected the about-face, charging it was a naked attempt to defuse criticism of Austria’s lurch rightward.

With the E.U. announcement this week that it has lifted sanctions against Austria, some wonder whether the wheels of restitution will, coincidentally, grind to a halt.

The president of Austria’s 6,500 Jews, for one, intends to keep Austrian feet to the fire.

Ariel Muzikant was in Washington this week for the fourth round of negotiations among representatives of Jewish groups and the Austrian and U.S. governments.

Austria is notorious for its failure to fully face up to its Nazi past. But in May, months after a similar settlement by Germany, Austria agreed to pay $395 million to roughly 150,000 former slave and forced laborers.

That is pocket change compared with what negotiators for victims are pursuing now: “tens of billions of dollars,” said Muzikant, for the property stolen from Austrian Jewry, which numbered 200,000 before World War II.

Austria has reportedly countered with an offer of $150 million.

“It’s a joke,” said Muzikant, “but I’m not going to break my head over it, if the other side’s being ridiculous.”

In addition, Austria is reportedly attempting to separate the property restitution issue from compensation for slave and forced laborers, and to secure “legal closure” to prevent any further claims against Austria.

It seems that Austrian industry is nervously looking on, fearing it will be targeted for those firms that may also have profited from forced labor.

Neither effort will succeed, said Muzikant.

Negotiators want the two issues to remain linked so Austria cannot place one restitution deal under its belt, then drag its heels on the second.

Regarding “legal closure,” Muzikant said that no one can prevent a survivor from Budapest, London or New York from filing a claim in the future.

“It’s fair to want some sort of closure, but it would be better for Austria to really face what it did during the war, then come to the table with an overall, realistic policy,” Muzikant said.

He noted that what prods Austria is restitution momentum and public opinion.

Holocaust settlements have been made across the European continent, with virtually no perpetrator being left untouched. Moreover, opinion polls in Austria indicate growing sentiment for the issues to be resolved once and for all, especially among the younger generation.

However, it’s unclear what percentage of pro-restitution Austrians are driven by guilt, a sense of moral obligation — and how many are simply fed up with being pressed on the issue, said Muzikant.

In any event, Muzikant remains optimistic that progress will continue.

“Don’t forget,” he said, “for 55 years there wasn’t even an offer.”

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