Austria pledges $150 million restitution


WASHINGTON, Dec. 26 (JTA) — Austria has agreed to pay an additional installment of $150 million to compensate Jews whose property was looted by the Nazis, but stopped far short of a comprehensive and conclusive agreement covering all restitution issues.

After a day of talks with Austrian officials in Washington, U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat called the Austrian offer a “good-faith effort,” but said more needs to be done in order for Austria to achieve “legal peace.”

The agreement hammered out Dec. 21 called for the additional $150 million, plus a claims-based component in an amount yet to be determined. Additional health and subsistence benefits for overseas survivors, totaling $65 million over ten years, were added as well.

The new money is in addition to nearly $150 million Austria promised in October for interim restitution payments. At that time, the government agreed to pay $7,000 to each of an estimated 21,000 Jews who lost apartments and other property.

The United States has stepped up pressure on Austria to settle a broad range of Holocaust-era issues.

In May, months after a similar settlement by Germany, Austria agreed to pay $395 million to roughly 150,000 former slave and forced laborers.

Austria has resisted paying for Jewish property looted through the Nazis’ so-called Aryanization program, and has not been forthcoming about either the return of seized lands that are now public or insurance companies that never paid the claims of Holocaust victims.

Austrian Ambassador Ernst Sucharipa said at a State Department briefing that there is a realization in Austria that past restitution efforts were “not sufficient and must be improved upon.”

The Claims Conference, an umbrella group that deals with restitution issues and has been spearheading efforts to get Austria to address the property restitution issue, offered stern words about the status of the negotiations.

“We don’t believe that the offer is adequate, and we believe the negotiations have to continue until we can achieve a settlement that will give survivors at least a measure of rough justice,” said Gideon Taylor, the group’s executive vice president.

Declaring that both sides are flexible and getting closer to an agreement, Eizenstat said further negotiations are planned Jan. 10-11 in Vienna and Jan. 15-16 in Washington.

What’s most important, according to Taylor, is to resolve the issues as quickly as possible because of the advanced age of Holocaust survivors.

The Claims Conference fought for, and won, a streamlined process to dispense the first $150 million payment finalized in October, which covered household property and apartment and small business leases. The conference insisted that Austria speed up the process so the money can start going out to survivors by March.

Hillary Kessler-Godin, a spokesperson for the conference, said that in an early-morning meeting last week, Eizenstat indicated that Austria had said the process might take up to two years.

In addition to the age issue, some feel it imperative to speed up the process because of Eizenstat’s imminent departure from government when the Clinton administration ends.

It is unclear whether the Bush administration will choose a new point person on Holocaust restitution, but many find it unlikely that a replacement will work as diligently as Eizenstat.

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