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U.S. Court Decision Opens Door to Compensation for Austrian Survivors

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A U.S. court decision has paved the way for final compensation payments to Holocaust survivors from Austria. The Dec. 7 decision by a U.S. District Court in New York to dismiss class-action lawsuits against Austrian businesses was greeted with relief by survivor organizations and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, parties to a settlement negotiated with the Austrian government.

The resulting legal closure means payments are imminent, Gideon Taylor, Claims Conference executive vice president, said. Neither the Austrian government nor businesses would agree to payments without insurance against future lawsuits.

“This fund has been tied up in legal knots in courts in the U.S., and this had deprived many Austrian Holocaust survivors and their heirs of the symbolic payments,” Taylor told JTA in a telephone interview.

But, “like most restitution payments, this is not an issue of money,” he emphasized. “The amounts are small, but the property losses were large. This is about symbolism. People are frustrated that what was supposed to be a symbolic gesture turned into a legal argument.”

In all, Austrian restitution funds totaled about $500 million. But the component from the $210 million General Settlement Fund (GSF) for Austrian Jews created in January 2001 through negotiations with the Claims Conference was held up until Dec. 7. That’s when Judge Shirley Wohl Kram of the Southern District of New York dismissed the cases brought against the government and industry of Austria by some Jews of Austrian background, and by some heirs.

Kram threw out the suits after the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had dismissed remaining Holocaust-related lawsuits against Austria, ordered her on Nov. 23 to resolve the cases within 60 days. The Appeals Court called GSF a preferable method of ensuring payments to victims of Nazism.

“We look upon this with great favor,” said Henry Wegner, a survivor from Austria who in 1966 co-founded the American Council for Equal Compensation of Nazi Victims from Austria.

The organization submitted a decisive amicus brief in the case — quoted in the judge’s opinion — urging the court to “take affirmative action to ensure that compensation is paid to Holocaust survivors during their lifetimes.”

The group also was party to negotiations with the Austrian government, together with Israeli survivors, the Claims Conference, the Austrian National Fund and attorney Stuart Eisenstadt, who had also handled compensation negotiations on behalf of the Clinton administration.

Wegner told JTA that he had faced resistance from some Jews in Austria who wanted to press ahead with their lawsuits brought in American courts. But Ariel Musikant, head of the Jewish Community of Austria, said he was delighted by the dismissal of the suits and expected “people may get their first payments on December 16th.”

He told JTA that he had convinced “26 plaintiffs to consent to withdraw their claims and there is just one left. And the one guy is suing everybody now.”

He did not identify this person, but said that the court action on Nov. 23 and Dec. 7 “means people will finally get their money. We never expected it to go so fast.”

It was not fast enough for many claimants. In some cases, heirs will be the beneficiaries, said Hannah Lessing, director of the Austrian National Fund, which will distribute the payments out of the GSF.

Lessing told JTA that of the 30,000 claimants who filed for compensation, only 15,000 are still living. The fund tries to reach the oldest claimants first, she said. In all, there are some 19,000 valid claims.

“Everybody who handed in a claim and has been” approved “will receive a letter” asking them to sign a waiver, according to which they will now receive 10 percent of the amount they claimed. Those who agree will likely later receive an additional payment from funds that remain after the initial distribution.

The other option is to reject the waiver and hope that the remaining funds will be sufficient to provide a compensation of more than 10 percent.

The GSF funds amount to symbolic compensation for stolen assets, including real estate, liquidated businesses, bank accounts, securities, mortgages, insurance policies, personal effects, and the loss of education and jobs.

According to Lessing, three homes already have been returned to their former owners or heirs. Two previous components of the negotiated agreement with Austria — $150 million from the Austrian National Fund and payments for pensions and nursing care  have been implemented.

Wegner, who survived several concentration camps and lost most of his family in the Holocaust, said he now has written a letter thanking Andreas Kohl, President of Austria’s Parliament, for endorsing the legal closure and urging him to see that payments go out quickly.

“Nothing will ever be fair,” Lessing, whose father fled Nazi Austria for Palestine, said. “Whatever we do will always be a little piece of a puzzle.”

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