(JTA) – Seventy-five Holocaust historians blasted the planned jailing of an Austrian scholar for restitution fraud after he criticized the republic’s failures to compensate victims.
Stephan Templ, a vocal critic of Austria’s Holocaust-era conduct, is to begin serving his one-year sentence next week for his 2014 conviction over his omission of a relative from a restitution form he filled out for his mother in 2006.
In 2001, Templ published the book “Our Vienna: Aryanization, Austrian-Style,” in which he identified individual families that moved into Jewish homes stolen in the 1930s and never returned. Templ also led tour groups to see the stolen houses during which he toted a loudspeaker, occasionally calling out the names of the families that had come to live in them.
“The Austrian government’s decision to intervene by prosecuting and jailing Mr. Templ will be seen as an extreme overreaction to Mr. Templ’s important book,” the 75 historians wrote in a letter they sent Monday to the Austrian ambassador in Washington, Hans Peter Manz.
“This matter could have been resolved by the Templ family in civil court,” argued the historians, whose letter was coordinated by the Washington D.C.-based David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
The signatories on the letter include Wyman; Deborah Lipstadt, author of “History on Trial”; Walter Reich, a former executive director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; and Michael Berenbaum, a former research director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Templ, who is represented pro bono by the well-known human rights attorney Robert Amsterdam, argued that Austrian law does not require restitution applicants to list all heirs and, in any case, the state cannot be considered the victim of his actions as it does not legally own the property it was returning.
Last week, Austria’s economy ministry said it asked prosecutors to examine claims of discriminatory treatment in Templ’s trial.
Karl Pfeifer, an anti-fascist activist, called Templ’s conviction a vendetta.
In a plea for clemency he sent to Austrian President Heinz Fischer, Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL’s national director, wrote, “The extraordinary use of criminal law by the state in the case of Stephan Templ raises some uncomfortable questions.”