Remarks by Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat on the Occasion of the 15th Anniversary of the Austrian National Fund and the General Settlement Fund

In 2010, the Austrian National Fund will celebrate its 15th anniversary, under the inspired leadership of Hannah Lessing and with the support of the broad Austrian political leadership. It has been a record of great success, vision and leadership.

I began my work as the Clinton Administration’s leader on Holocaust-Era restitution issues in 1994, while I was also U.S. Ambassador to the European Union in Brussels. My initial work was on encouraging the return of communally-owned property to the Jewish and Christian religious communities, which had been confiscated by the Nazis during World War II and the Communists in the post-war period.

However, my major negotiations began in the fall of 1995, first with Switzerland, over dormant Holocaust-Era bank accounts, and then in following years with the Germans over slave labor, insurance, and other property issues, with Austria, over slave labor, private property, insurance, and other matters; and with France over bank accounts. I likewise was the principal negotiator of the Washington Principles on Nazi-looted art in 1998, and my staff worked with the International Commission of Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC), and its leader, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, on insurance claims.

Importantly, the initiative of the Austrian government to create the Austrian National Fund did not result from external pressure from the U.S. or elsewhere. It was created in 1995 at the sole initiative of Austria. This helped create momentum for my future negotiations, by setting an example for other countries.

Austria, unlike Germany, followed a complicated path to reconcile with its role in World War II. Was Austria victim or willing accomplice? Even as late as my negotiations in the late 1990s and 2000 with Austria, leading political figures stressed that Austria was the “first victim” of Nazi aggression. But the creation of the National Fund was a recognition that Austria had a wartime debt to Holocaust survivors and their families.

 I had begun to get a glimpse of the desire of the Austrian government to face its past during my tenure as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. Much to our surprise, we found that an obscure post-war institution in Brussels still had gold deposits taken by the Nazis from the central governments of a number of countries. At the meeting of the Tripartite Gold Commission, Ambassador Hans Winkler of Austria took the lead on urging countries to contribute the value of the gold holdings to an international fund for Holocaust survivors. I was deeply moved when Ambassador Winkler pledged all of Austria’s remaining share and said that “we all have a moral obligation to the survivors of the Holocaust, and to make their remaining days better.” This dramatic statement opened a floodgate of commitments. It was the beginning of what I have called “belated justice” for Holocaust victims, and because it came from Austria, it had a particular impact.

Over the years, the National Fund has allocated payments of some 153 million Euros  to 30,000 recipients. These funds have been administered in an efficient and transparent manner.

As a result of my negotiations, then as Deputy Secretary of State, with the Austrian government to resolve class action suits against Austrian companies, I reached a series of agreements for slave labor compensation and private property compensation and restitution, with then Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel (with whom I developed a relationship of great trust and confidence.) I negotiated intensively with the Chancellor and his talented aides, including Ambassador Winkler, Maria Schaumayer (a remarkable person, who had been president of the Austrian Central Bank and who Chancellor Schuessel had persuaded to come out of retirement to negotiate a “Reconciliation, Peace and Cooperation” fund for surviving forced and slave laborers), and Ernst Sucharipa, for property negotiations. Our agreements resulted in close to a total of $1 billion in payments.

It was a sign of the confidence that the Austrian government and the U.S. government had in Hannah Lessing and her staff, that the U.S.-Austrian agreement of 2000 provided that Ms. Lessing’s National Fund would be given the additional responsibility of administering the complicated General Settlement Fund of over $200 million for private property compensation to those whose property was confiscated by the Nazis.

 I have met personally with Hannah Lessing and her staff on several occasions, most recently in 2009. I expressed to them my admiration for the dedicated work they have done on both the National Fund and the General Settlement Fund.

Frankly, we underestimated how many claimants there would be for the General Settlement Fund -- over 19,000 claims were filed. As a result, the over-$200 million fund was insufficient to provide the level of justice we had hoped, giving claimants only a small fraction of the value of their property or their families property. But under these trying circumstances, Hannah Lessing did an extraordinary job to provide a clear, honest claims process, which did the most possible for victims and their families under the agreement with which she had to live.

More recently, I met with Ms. Lessing at the Prague Conference on Holocaust Assets at the end of June, 2009. I headed the United States delegation, and there were 46 countries represented, including Austria. Here again, Austria took the lead. In the detailed Terezin Declaration that materialized from several days of negotiations, the 46 nations placed their key priority in helping the elderly, poor Holocaust survivors, who are living out an already tragic life in poverty and deprivation. We were able to point to Austria as having taken the kind of leadership that would help survivors in their declining years. Austria has developed a home care program which assists not only Austrian Holocaust survivors living in Austria, but those living anywhere else in the world.

Austria has traveled a long way in recent years to come to terms with its wartime past. While there are still elements of the Austrian political scene that provide reason for concern, I believe that as shown by the success of the Austrian National Fund and the completion of the claims process of the General Settlement Fund, all under the leadership of Hannah Lessing, Austria has turned an important page in its history. I congratulate the National Fund on its 15th anniversary. There is much reason to celebrate.