WASHINGTON, Jan. 18 (JTA) After last-minute negotiating, Austria, the United States and Jewish groups signed an agreement under which Austria will pay millions of dollars to Holocaust survivors.
Until the 11th hour, it looked as if the deal might collapse, as Austrian officials and the country’s Jewish community couldn’t quite reach agreement on terms.
But late Wednesday, Austria agreed to pay $210 million, plus approximately $20 million in interest, to cover victims’ property claims and unpaid insurance polices.
The government also will pay an estimated $100 million in social welfare benefits to Austrian Jews.
The talks were prodded along by Jewish groups’ insistence that a settlement must be made quickly because of survivors’ advanced age.
Another motivating factor was concern about what might happen under a new U.S. administration that has not identified Holocaust restitution as a priority, and which will lose the stewardship of Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, the U.S. point man on Holocaust issues.
There is no way of knowing how the incoming Bush administration will deal with restitution efforts, said Israel Singer, who was involved in the negotiations.
Singer, the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, said it will take months just to coordinate efforts with the new administration. Eizenstat reportedly fought hard for a deal during the two days of talks in Washington and personally pressured Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel for the social welfare package.
The benefits, which include pensions and nursing care, was a major concern for Jewish groups in the negotiations.
The agreement will give lifetime pensions to all Austrian Jewish survivors, including about 10,000 living in the United States.
“It’s the best that can be done under the circumstances,” said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, which represents world Jewry in negotiations for compensation and restitution.
The Claims Conference won a streamlined process for dispensing a $150 million payment finalized in October, which covers household property and apartment and small business leases. That accord gives $7,000 to each of an estimated 21,000 Jews who lost property.
Austria had promised a $150 million settlement for the insurance and property claims after negotiations in December, but Jewish groups called that inadequate. Wednesday’s deal ups the ante significantly.
In May, months after a similar settlement by Germany, Austria agreed to pay $395 million to roughly 150,000 former slave and forced laborers. Wednesday’s agreement, which also includes millions for a land deal with the Hakoah Sports Club, brings to $900 million the total Austria has promised in the last year for its role in Holocaust-era dealings.
The $210 million will go into the General Settlement Fund, with money from the public and private sectors, and acknowledges the importance of paying compensation immediately. An arbitration panel will be established to review claims of government property that once was owned by the Austrian Jewish community or by individuals.
Addressing communal property concerns is very important, Eizenstat said, adding that one of the agreement’s key components is to “assure the continuity of the Austrian Jewish community.”
The president of the Austrian Jewish community said some issues are very complicated and he still wants lawyers to review the agreement.
Ariel Muzicant said he generally was satisfied with the agreement, but he only initialed it and still wants clarification on property restitution issues.
Muzicant is pushing for the return of all Aryanized property that is still held by any public entity, not just the state.
“When I say everything, I mean everything,” he said.
The Austrian Jewish community is behind him 100 percent, Muzicant says.
After the lawyers review the agreement and he meets with Austrian officials, Muzicant said he would determine what to do.
The comprehensive agreement is intended to bring “legal peace” to Austria, which has been under pressure by the United States to resolve the restitution issues. But the processing of claims will be very complex, said Hannah Lessing, a Jewish official at Austria’s National Fund for Victims of National Socialism, the body disbursing the claims payment.
In the joint statement issued by all the parties, Austria admitted its “moral responsibility” and said it is “facing up to the light and dark sides of its past and to the deeds of all Austrians, good and evil.”
“No amount of money can undo the tremendous suffering and losses that have been inflicted on our Jewish citizens,” said Austrian Ambassador Ernst Sucharipa at the signing ceremony.
The admission that mistakes were made and that Austria did not treat its Jews fairly is particularly important for attorney E. Randol Schoenberg and his clients. Schoenberg, whose family escaped from Vienna before the Holocaust, represents over 100 clients seeking restitution.
“The acknowledgment means more to them than the money,” he said.