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Behind the Headlines: Austrian Estate of Far-right Leader Belonged to Jews Before the War

October 12, 1999
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The fortune that fuels the political career of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party leader Jorg Haider is a $15 million estate that was acquired from Jewish owners during World War II.

The 3,700-acre Barental property was owned by Russian-born Giorgio Roifer, a wealthy Jewish businessman who studied law in Vienna before moving to Pisa, Italy, and founding a timber business in the 1920s.

According to the London-based Mail on Sunday, Roifer bought the Barental forest — a hunting, fishing, shooting, wood-logging estate near the Austrian border with Slovenia — 10 years after establishing his business in Pisa.

Within weeks of the Anschluss in March 1938, the writing was on the wall – – literally: Visiting the estate, Roifer found a sign at the entrance to a hotel where he usually stayed on such visits: “Dogs and Jews Are Not Welcome.”

Shortly afterward, just before he died of cancer at the age of 38, Roifer urged his wife, Mathilde, to take their children — Noemi, 10, Josef, 8, and Alexander, 6 — to Palestine.

Before leaving Italy a year later, Mathilde entrusted the family property to her brother-in-law, who was, in turn, compelled to hand over responsibility for the family’s assets to an Austrian lawyer.

In early 1941, Barental passed out of the hands of the Roifer family when the Austrian lawyer sold it to Josef Webhofer, a wealthy businessman and a Nazi activist who had been commended as a “good party worker.”

According to official documents of the time, the sale was an “Entjudungsangengheit” — a matter of taking something from a Jew — and was made between Webhofer, described as “a full Aryan,” and Mathilde Roifer, “a Jewess.”

The property was sold at less than one-tenth of its real value, and by the time Mathilde Roifer learned of the sale and claimed the money after the war, inflation had rendered it virtually worthless.

Josef Webhofer, had meanwhile died and the property passed to Wilhelm Webhofer, who gave it to his great-nephew, Jorg Haider, in 1986.

Alexander Roifer, who now lives in Jerusalem, insists that his mother had neither authorized nor approved the sale by the Austrian lawyer, but she accepted a settlement of about $120,000 in the 1950s and agreed to make no more claims on the property.

Roifer, 67, accepts that the family may no longer have a legal claim to the property, “but if you ask if I think what happened was morally right, the answer is, I think it stinks.”

Roifer turns aside suggestions that Haider, now one of the wealthiest men in Austria, should make some gesture of recompense to the family: “A man builds his life, and fortunately I have found other things to keep me busy and interested.

“Of course I am sorry that the Roifer forest is now the Haider forest, but at the end of the day he had nothing to do with the sale.”

Roifer, however, is concerned about developments in Austria today, which he perceives as being quite different from the attitude toward the past in Germany.

“In Germany you have people who feel real shame and who struggle to comprehend how their country could have done such terrible things,” he said. “This kind of soul-searching I did not encounter in Austria.”

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