Even as a worldwide search was launched to locate and pay insurance policies of Jewish Holocaust victims and their heirs, a major Israeli group rejected offers by the new rightist Austrian government to resolve its outstanding Holocaust-era claims.
"It is imperative that we not fall into Haider’s trap and let him use the back of the Jewish people to gain recognition and legitimacy from the world," Salai Meridor, chairman of The Jewish Agency, told The Jewish Week.
He was referring to Joerg Haider, who has made comments over the years (for which he has since apologized) that were sympathetic to Nazi policies.
"This new government should be considered by the Western world as Haider’s government," Meridor said. "The fact that he is not sitting in the government is meaningless. The fact that [his Freedom Party] is in it colors the entire government."
But U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat disagreed with Meridor, telling The Jewish Week: "We shouldn’t [do that] to people who are survivors and have been dealt injustices for 50 years. We can’t make them hostage to concerns we have with parts of the government. … It would not be fair to long-suffering people. If we can help them, we should help them."
Meridor said he had expressed his view in letters to the other members of the Conference on Jewish and Material Claims Against Germany and Austria and that he hoped they would be supportive.
"I can hardly see how any of us could not be," said Meridor.
The executive vice president of the Claims Conference, Gideon Taylor, said he was aware of Meridor’s comments and that the "issue of restitution in Austria is one that is being reviewed by the Claims Conference."
Meridor’s comments came the same day the government of Austria appointed Maria Schaumayer, retired president of the Austrian National Bank, as its emissary in dealing with Jewish reparations. Austrian Ambassador Hans Winkler, a legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry who has been involved in reparation issues for the last four years, told The Jewish Week he had a "good feeling" about the desire of the new government to resolve all claims.
Eizenstat, who has been appointed by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to oversee Austrian reparations, said he would have "no contact with Mr. Haider," but rather plans to deal with Schaumayer "to the extent that they ask. At this point, they have not decided what role they want us to play."
In a meeting with Winkler on Monday, Eizenstat stressed the need to compensate tens of thousands of Jews who never received restitution after being forced by the Nazis from their apartments.
Eizenstat said Winkler promised that those who were forced to perform slave and forced labor in Austria would receive at least what Germany agreed to pay. And Eizenstat said he also spoke about Austriaís need to return looted art and to urge Austrian insurance companies to participate in the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims chaired by Lawrence Eagleburger.
One of those planning to file an insurance claim is Sylvia Mandelbaum, 70, of the Upper East Side, who said her father and grandfather both had Austrian insurance policies before the Holocaust.
"We were among the richest 100 families in our city," she said, referring to Bukovina in southeast Austria. "After the war, we had nothing."
She said her parents survived the war but her grandfather did not. "You can give some of the money back," Mandelbaum said, "but doing good after 50 or 60 years? Our whole city doesn’t exist. Not one Jew lives there now, and very few of the 100,000 Jews before the war survived. Our lives, our city, our assets were taken away from us. It was like an atom bomb fell over our city."
Sylvia Kornfeld of East Norwich, L.I., said her husband, Henry, is waiting for the Austrian government to keep its promise on restitution to the Jews who lost their apartments. She said she remembers her mother-in-law, who died in 1997, speaking about how her family was "forced out of their apartment in June 1938."
"They were given just days to leave. They left almost all of their possessions behind," Kornfeld said.
During a Washington press conference to announce that five major European insurance companies would pay unpaid claims on policies of Holocaust victims opened between 1920 and 1945, Eagleburger was asked about Meridor’s comments.
"As far as I’m concerned, if I can get three Austrian insurance companies to join the [restitution] process, I am prepared to do it."
Meridor agreed. "There is an obligation of the Austrian people to give back what they took, and I think that could be achieved without negotiating with the government," he said.
At the press conference, Eagleburger stressed that "relaxed standards" would be used in evaluating claims. Such things as diary entries, premium receipts and even private correspondence might be sufficient.
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said the insurance companies would soon be posting the names of unpaid policyholders on the commission’s Web site. He noted that one of the companies, Assicurazioni Generali, has 20,000 such claims.
Eagleburger said the claims would be paid at 10 times the policies’ face value. More than 10,000 Jewish organizations worldwide are being briefed on the claims process to assist applicants.
Besides Assicurazioni Generali, the other insurance companies now in the commission are Allianz AG of Germany, AXA of France, and Winterthur Leben and Zurich Financial Services of Switzerland. The commission will request companies not in the commission to pay claims filed against them. A fund will be established to pay claims filed against insurance companies no longer in business. Those with insurance claims can obtain a claim form by calling (800) 957-3203, checking the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims Web site at www.ICHEIC.org, or sending in forms that will appear soon in newspapers worldwide.