Dealing with Austria without dealing with Austria


NEW YORK, March 22 (JTA) — Jewish officials seeking restitution from Austria are in a bind.

One the one hand, they are unwilling to negotiate directly with the Austrian government because it includes members of the far-right Freedom Party.

But they also want to seek justice for Jews whose assets were looted by the Austrian government during World War II.

The Claims Conference, an umbrella group that deals with restitution issues with Germany and Austria, made clear after a series of meetings last week in Jerusalem that it “will not negotiate with the present government of Austria.”

But at the same time, it said in a statement, the group will explore other means “to achieve its critical goals.”

Given their unwillingness to deal directly with Austria, achieving those goals will demand some “creative negotiating,” according to a source familiar with the situation.

At stake are some $10 billion in heirless assets in Austria, according to Elan Steinberg, the executive director of the World Jewish Congress, which is a member of the Claims Conference. He cited the figure based on a 1953 U.S. State Department analysis.

The “creative negotiating” includes several options, Steinberg told JTA:

• Indirect negotiations using such go-betweens as U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, the Clinton administration’s point man on Holocaust issues, or European Union officials;

• Dealing with institutions in Austria not linked to the government, including that nation’s president or members of its Parliament;

• A class-action lawsuit, which the WJC announced this week it may file to answer “all questions of restitution” involving Austria.

Jewish officials are demanding that Austria deal both with the restitution of property and the compensation of Holocaust-era slave laborers working in Austria.

This week, the Austrian official dealing with the slave-labor issue said her nation would follow Germany’s lead when it comes to deciding how much to pay to such workers.

If Germany pays $7,400 to each laborer, Austria would do the same, Maria Schaumayer, the former governor Austria’s central bank, said Tuesday in Washington after meeting with Eizenstat.

But Austria’s focus on slave laborers to the exclusion of property restitution “is not sufficient,” said Steinberg. “It is not going to solve the problem.”

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