Austrian Survivors Get Some Closure with Reparations and Returned Paintings
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Austrian Survivors Get Some Closure with Reparations and Returned Paintings

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The expulsion and extermination of 182,000 Austrian Jews during the Nazi era is a wound that will never heal completely, but two important decisions during recent weeks at least point to a symbolic closure for the dwindling number of survivors and the Austrian government. In a high-profile case, Maria Altmann won her seven-year battle to recover from Austria five famous paintings looted by the Nazis from her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.

Meanwhile, after an even longer period of legal and diplomatic wrangling, a court decision has cleared the final hurdle for payment of restitution money to survivors or the heirs of victims.

The Altmann case ended when the Austrian government accepted the decision of an arbitration court in Vienna that the paintings, by Gustav Klimt, belonged to Altmann, 89, and four relatives.

The decisive ruling in favor of Altmann is “the most important victory in the entire history of litigation on Holocaust restitution,” said Michael Bazyler of Whittier Law School in California, whose latest book, “Holocaust Restitution: Perspectives on the Litigation and Its Legacy,” has just been published.

The most famous of the paintings is a gold-flecked portrait of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, currently a centerpiece of the Austrian National Gallery and one of the most reproduced pictures of all time.

There are still some loose ends to be tied up, especially whether Austria will try to buy the Adele portrait, considered a national treasure, from Altmann.

The portrait is valued at about $100 million, and the government has said it cannot afford the sum, which is equal to the annual budget for all Austrian museums.

Austria hopes that a private donor might step up.

The other Klimt works are a second portrait of Bloch-Bauer and three landscapes.

A bizarre touch was added last week, when E. Randol Schoenberg, Altmann’s attorney, received an anonymous e-mail, whose sender threatened to destroy the Klimt paintings in order for “hungry people to get bread.”

Austrian authorities temporarily removed the paintings from the National Gallery, and then arrested a 50-year-old man, tracked down through his Internet provider. The unidentified man claimed that he was drunk when he sent the e-mail.

Though Altmann has said she would not change her lifestyle after receiving compensation, she plans “to do something” for the Jewish communities in Austria and the United States, and for Israel. Once the money is in hand, she also hopes to realize her long-held dream of sponsoring a performance by the Los Angeles Opera, starring her idol, tenor Placido Domingo. The event would be dedicated to her late husband, whose ambitions for an operatic career were cut short when he had to flee Austria.

Altmann said she had urged Austria seven years ago to arbitrate the dispute, “but I never got a response back.”

While the Altmann case has made the headlines, it is only part of the larger question of Austria’s responsibility toward Nazi victims.

In the postwar decades, Austria, whose native son Adolf Hitler incorporated it into the Third Reich during the 1938 Anschluss, played the role of “first victim” of the Nazism, guiltless of the Holocaust and other atrocities.

This attitude changed in the mid-1990s, when the Austrian president admitted for the first time that his country, most of whose citizens jubilantly welcomed Hitler, bore its share of blame for Nazi crimes.

In 1995, the Austrian Parliament established the National Fund for Victims of National Socialism, which over the past 10 years has appropriated some $770 million under various programs compensating for loss of property, education, pensions, tenancy rights, and for slave labor and hardship cases.

But Austria held back some $210 million, until the government was guaranteed that no subsequent class action suits against Austrian businesses would be filed by survivors.

Last month, a U.S. District Court in New York dismissed all such class-action suits, a decision welcomed by the Claims Conference, which negotiated with Austria on behalf of survivors.

The first payments to some 19,000 claimants in 69 countries are to start in December and should be completed one year later, said Hannah Lessing, secretary general of the Austrian National Fund. Lessing was in Los Angeles last week to meet with survivors, accompanied by the Austrian consul general, Martin Weiss.

Lessing was born in Vienna in 1963, the daughter of a Jewish photographer who had fled from Vienna to British Mandate Palestine in 1939, but returned to his native city after the war. He left behind his mother and grandmother, who both perished in Auschwitz.

Lessing’s non-Jewish mother, with Hannah and her siblings, formally converted to Judaism in 1973.

When Lessing switched from her career as a banker five years ago to accept her present position, she insisted on a proactive policy of seeking out survivors, open access for claimants to her offices, and a minimum of red tape.

Nevertheless, she acknowledged criticism that the process is still too slow and complex, especially given the advanced age of the remaining survivors.

“There are only some 12,500 Austrian survivors still alive, and every time one dies, we lose,” she said.

Lessing also wishes that she could raise the payment rate for Jewish property lost during the Nazi era, which now stands at only 10 percent to 15 percent of current valuation.

“No amount of money can ever make up for the suffering of the Holocaust,” she concluded. “Whatever we do is meant as a gesture of reconciliation toward our former citizens.”

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