Federal President: NS Victims as a “History Lesson” for Rosenkranz

Austrian Press Agency (APA) (04/20/10)

Event by “Letter to the Stars” sends a “warning against xenophobia”

Vienna – As a “warning against xenophobia, prejudice and propaganda,” young people placed ten thousand fliers with names of Austrian NS victims of Jewish belief upon Vienna’s Ballhausplatz. By doing so, one hoped to show that “where it leads to when a world view cements together ntolerance and arrogance toward others,” remarked event organizer Josef Neumayer from “A Letter to the Stars.”

The event is aimed at all those “who haven’t learned or refuse to learn in school about Austria’s dark past,” said Neumayer playing on the contentious words of the Austrian Freedom Party’s candidate for president, Barbara Rosenkranz.

Participating organizations included, among others, the Boy Scouts, Catholic Youth, Critical School Girls Campaign, the Student Association, Vienna Relief Organization, Mauthausen Committee of Carinthia, the Muslim Youth and the Jewish-Austrian University Students.

The young people weighted down the fliers with stones - which partly came from the quarry of the former Mauthausen concentration camp – and placed them before the building housing Austria’s federal president. The event was carried out amidst heavy gusts of wind and intermittent rain as if it were an “omen that the names be distributed across the city,” said Neumayr.

Also present at the event were survivors of concentration camps. “That is a different Austria,” commented Rudolf Gelbard, and “that means a lot to me.” Former EU commissioner Franz Fischler, who happened to walk by, found the idea “brilliant,” because “we in Austria we need a conscience.”

The event triggered criticism from the Austrian Freedom Party: Secretary General Herbert Kickl said in a statement that the “importance of remembrance of the victims of National Socialism” was “entirely undisputed,” that the “history lesson for Rosenkranz” was, however, “directly connected to the presidential elections.”

If the intention was to “humanly, morally and politically discredit” an “impeccably democratic candidate” shortly before an election, then the event’s organizers should be criticized of “abusing remembrance of NS victims and thereby the victims themselves,” and this was “reprehensible.”

Torches for Tolerance

The Vienna Review (04/01/2010)

At the “Dance of Lights Against Rosenkranz,” thousands demonstrated against a far-right candidate for president

Demonstrators marched with candles at Ballhausplatz in Vienna’s 1st District on the evening of March 25, joined in a protest against far-right candidate for the Austrian presidency, Barbara Rosenkranz from the Austrian Feedom Party (FPÖ).

The mood at Ballhausplatz, in Vienna’s 1st District, felt unusually welcoming on the evening of March 25, as a sea of brightly illuminated torches were carried high over the heads of thousands of marchers, joined in a protest against the far-right candidate for the Austrian presidency, Barbara Rosenkranz (FPÖ).

“We have to get up and fight to declare that we don’t want such things to happen,” said Ariel Muzicant, president of Vienna’s Jewish Community. “People need to understand that such events will only harm Austria’s reputation.”

Rosenkranz’s candidacy has revived old fears that are never far under the surface. After decades of effort by Austrian leaders to distance the country from the legacies of National Socialism, fears surfaced again in 2000, when the charismatic FPÖ leader Jörg Haider led the party to a resounding victory in the polls, clearing nearly 30 percent of the vote. And while the Social Democrats still led the field, the final negotiations put the Freedom Party government for the first time into a coalition with the center-right Peoples Party (ÖVP) under Wolfgang Schüssel, who became Federal chancellor.

Rosenkranz speaks at a rally in Sankt Pölten with the face of party leader Hans-Christian Strache glaring behind her.

“The Dance of Light Against Rosenkranz” had gathered largely in response to a Facebook protest group (“Gegen Barbara Rosenkranz als Bundespräsidentin – Against Barbara Rosenkranz for President”) mounted by Robert Slovacek, that laid its unvarnished motto on the line. Designed to raise public awareness on the growing radical right-wing sentiment in the upcoming presidential elections, the demonstration was also directed against the FPÖ candidate herself.

Backstage, thousands of torches were standing by to be handed out to the protestors as they arrived. And they showed up in droves, estimated at between 3,000 (by the police) and 6,000 (by the organizers) people.

Hosting the event, cabaret artist Ditmar Chmelar encouraged the crowd to gather at the square into a massive protest. He officially fired a ceremonial gun, triggering the illuminating of the torches. And suddenly, Ballhausplatz exploded in dazzling flames of light, swelling the strong feelings of community among the protestors. Many had decorated their torches with handmade anti-Rosenkranz buttons just to emphasize their message.

“The intention of this event,” Chmelar explained, “is to exile once and for all the current [radical] impression of Austria.”

Co-host and entertainer Alfons Haider, who brought along a piece of stone from the Mauthausen concentration camp in Upper Austria, challenged the absent presidential candidate: “Come to Mauthausen with me and experience it yourself. It is a massive dishonesty to deny the existence of gas chambers.”

“I can’t understand how a presidential candidate can doubt the Verbotsgesetz” – the law outlawing the denial of the Holocaust – Robert Slovacek declared, and thus question the “fundamental anti-Fascism principles of the Second Republic.”

To a cheering crowd, he restated the motto of the demonstration: “Let us offer this protest as a symbol and declare that there is no space in Austria for racism and extremism,” he said.

The demonstration ended with a symbolic gesture that had once marked the end of WW II and the Holocaust, as well as the reintroduction of a peaceful democracy for Austrian citizens – the national anthem. With 6,000 participants singing along, and the sound of “…viel gerühmtes Österreich, viel gerühmtes Österreich,” (highly renowned Austria) the night was plunged into darkness again. Slowly the crowd dispersed, some still carrying their torches, heading back out through the city streets to find their way home.

“Garden of Religions:” Focusing on Current Jewish-Christian Relations

Austrian Press Agency (APA) (04/27/10)

Exhibition depicts a transformation in relations and ongoing conflict

Horn – The focus of this year’s exhibition in the Benedictine Monastery in Altenburg bei Horn, “Garden of Religions” depicts current-day Jewish-Christian relations. The exhibition, “Separate – Together. Christians and Jews: Transformation of Relations,” opened end of April and will run until November 1. Its purpose is to remind one of the “rich spiritual heritage,” while at the same time expressing the differences in religious confessions,” explained chief abbot Christian Haidinger.

The goal is to promote “mutual recognition and respect” and to “reflect on the history of guilt committed by the church.” Not only the Church but also its visitors are to examine their attitude toward the Jewish people and draw necessary conclusions. Without introducing living-day Judaism, there can be no accessibility to Christian belief,” said Marin Jäggle, Catholic vice president of the coordinating committee for Christian-Jewish cooperation.

Starting from the pair of opposites, “Christian Church and Synagogue,” the exhibition sheds light on current-day relations between the two religious confessions. Together with examples taken from the Bible and ecclesiastical statements, ongoing conflicts involving the current positioning of Judaism within the Catholic Church become subject of discussion.

More information, see. http://www.stift-altenburg

First Muslim-Jewish Conference Held in Vienna

Austrian Press Agency (05/11/2010)

“The first step for young people to create together the power to forge a link between possibility and reality - the pronunciation of our names is no barrier for friendships.”

The first Muslim-Jewish Conference (MJC) 2010 will take place in Vienna from August 1 – 6. Participants will include sixty students from throughout the world having the common goal of establishing peaceful relations between both religions. The conference will feature discussions, lectures, open dialogue panels and social events.

The idea of the project stems from two Austrian students, Ilja Sichrovsky and Matthias Gattermeier, who due to their experiences attending international student conferences, were driven by the desire to create cultural awareness between young aspiring Jewish and Muslim academics. Today, the MJC committee harbors over twenty volunteers from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and America – specifically, Austria, Israel, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States of America.

Ilja Sichrovsky, founder and Secretary General of the MJC states: “Representing the
University of Vienna at numerous international student conferences, I have witnessed first-hand the inevitable misunderstanding and prejudices between young Muslims and Jews. The Muslim Jewish Conference was called to life to be the first step for young people to create together the power to forge a link between possibility and reality because the pronunciation of our names is no barrier for friendships.”

The Muslim Jewish Conference is officially endorsed by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) and the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The project is partly financed by the Karl Kahane Foundation, as well as by private donors. Our vision is to make the MJC an annual conference, rotating in different countries each year, and to provide a platform for real change in the interaction between Muslim and Jewish communities. The participants represent a new generation of thinkers and upcoming opinion leaders who are connected by their joint belief in a new era of cooperation.

Commemorating NS Victims and the Liberation of Mauthausen Sixty-Five Years Ago

Austrian Federal Chancellery (05/10/2010)

Sixty-five years ago on May 5, 1945, the National Socialist concentration camp of Mauthausen, was liberated by U.S. troops. Since 1989, May 5 has been observed as Remembrance Day Against Violence and Racisim.

To mark the occasion, Austria’s official representatives held a commemorative ceremony in the historic meeting hall of the Austrian Parliament. In addition to President Heinz Fischer and Speaker of the Parliament Barbara Prammer, the Federal government and numerous members of Parliament attended the event. Former Polish Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszwewski (88), a resistance fighter and Auschwitz survivor himself, urged in his commemorative speech, “dealing with the past in a responsible manner.”

This year’s commemorative ceremony focused on a group of pupils who had traced an incident referred to as the “Hare Hunting of Mühlviertel.” In February 1945 some 500 Soviet inmates tried to escape from Mauthausen and were killed in an unparalleled manhunt, in which the local population joined in.

Following the commemorative ceremony in Parliament, Chancellor Faymann and Bartoszwewski held face-to-face talks. Faymann praised Bartoszwewski’s commitment to dialogue and public education efforts towards reconciliation with the past.

The centerpiece of this year’s liberation ceremony was the memorial held at Mauthausen on May 9, 2010, attended by delegations from throughout the world. Highlighted this year were the children and young people detained in the concentration camp. In March 1945, some 15,000 children between the ages of four and twenty were registered by name in Mauthausen. Some 200,000 people were detained under inhumane conditions at Mauthausen and its forty-nine subcamps. About half of them did not survive annihilation.

Turks in Vienna: The History of a Jewish Community

Jewish Museum Vienna (www.jmw.at)

The year 1492 was a fateful one for Spain. It was the year in which the Reconquista finally ended eight hundred years of Arab Muslim rule, the Jews were expelled from the country and Christopher Columbus set off on a journey that was to lead to the discovery of the New World.

The exhibition, "The Turks in Vienna," looks at the impact of one of these significant historical events that marked the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, namely the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, who found refuge in North Africa, some Italian cities and, above all, in the Ottoman Empire.

They fled initially to Portugal before leaving the Iberian Peninsula for Holland and northern Germany. Following the Ottoman conquests, Jews of Spanish descent - called "Sephardim"- were able to form culturally and economically significant communities in the Balkans.

There were contacts between the Jews in Vienna and the Sephardim, or Turkish Jews, even during the era of the ghetto in Unterer Werd, but it was not until the peace treaties between the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the eighteenth century that Turkish Jews were able to move freely within the Habsburg Empire.

Following the establishment of the Turkish Jewish community in Vienna, an imperial patent gave it permission to hold religious services. The community had its prayer house from the outset in the 2nd district. In 1887, the impressive Moorish-style Sephardic-Turkish temple was inaugurated in Zirkusgasse, with portraits of the Habsburg and Ottoman regents in the foyer, indicating the community's loyalty to both rulers and countries. In November 1938, this jewel of Jewish sacral architecture was destroyed along with practically all other synagogues and Jewish prayer houses in Vienna, and most of the community was subsequently deported and exterminated.

The Sephardic Jews in Vienna were in many ways communicators between East and West, Orient and Occident, Asia and Europe, a role that was performed in the first place as merchants and dealers importing wool and cotton, silk and tobacco, sugar and spices to the West. Their function as active exponents of the Austrian post office in Constantinople and the Levant, Austrian Lloyd, and the Orient Express is also highlighted in the exhibition, "The Turks in Vienna."

The Sephardic Turks played this communicating role at the cultural level as well. They set up the first printing works in Constantinople and the Sephardic press in Vienna. There rabbinical tradition also received significant stimulus from the Sephardic Jews. The treasures of medieval Spanish-Turkish poetry were passed on and translated, and the Sephardim were also responsible for developing Jewish mysticism. Moreover, they were the first to make Arab philosophy and medicine available to the Western world.

Sephardic scholars became famous as scientists and rabbis, as translators, philosophers, and Hebrew studies specialists. Sephardic publishers distributed their writings throughout the Ladino-speaking world and produced writers of the caliber of Elias Canetti, to mention but one example.
All of these facets of the Sephardic Diaspora and its contribution to the cultural history of the Eastern and Western world can be seen in the exhibition, "The Turks in Vienna" from May 12 to October 31, 2010, at the Jewish Museum Vienna.

Spindelegger: It is Imperative Not Only to Commemorate But Also to Take Action

Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs (05/04/2010)

Austrian Foreign Minister on Memorial Day against Violence and Racism

“The commemoration of the Nazi genocide and the commitment to a tolerant and humane society are both tasks that cannot be done justice with words alone: They also require action,” stated Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, commenting on the Memorial Day against Violence and Racism on May 5. Introduced in 1997 by a resolution of the Austrian Parliament, the Memorial Day commemorates the victims of the Nazi regime on the anniversary of the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp.

“Austria has undertaken numerous activities to commemorate the victims of the Nazi regime and intensify education as well as the provision of information on the history of the Holocaust,” continued Spindelegger. The most recent examples cited by the Minister include the renovation of Jewish cemeteries in Austria, the provision of a substantial contribution to the refurbishment of the Auschwitz Memorial, as well as the re-design of its exhibition documenting the fate of Austrians detained and/or killed there.

The Foreign Minister also referred to the Salzburg Seminar Conference to be held in June, which is co-financed by the Austrian Future Fund. It will illuminate the contribution of educational measures aimed at the dissemination of knowledge on the Holocaust in order to avoid genocide and crimes against humanity in the future. “By observing the Memorial Day, we pay tribute to all those who were forced to experience and suffer the agonies of the Nazi regime in the form of persecution or detention, including those who are today committed to the fight against violence and racism. We must learn from the past in order to effectively counter today’s violence, racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia,” concluded Spindelegger.

Six Million for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation from Austria

Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial (02/24/2010) (http://en.auschwitz.org.pl)
Austria has joined the countries declaring financial support for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation with a contribution of €6 million. The purpose of the Foundation, called into being last year by Professor Władysław Bartoszewski, is to set up a perpetual fund to generate income that will be assigned to the long-term conservation program at the Auschwitz Memorial.

“Six million Euros is the sum that Austria has pledged,” said Josef Proell, the deputy prime minister and finance minister, following a cabinet meeting. He pointed out that this will be exactly one-tenth of the support committed to the Foundation by Germany, a country with a population ten times that of Austria. “The details of the financing remain to be worked out,” Proell said.

“Working together is the only way we can create a system to ensure the long-term conservation of the remains of the Auschwitz camp,” said Museum Director Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński, who is also the president of the management board of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. “We cannot deprive our children and grandchildren of the memory of this worst experience of the 20th century,” he added. “They, too, will build the world of their times, and they will therefore need a full awareness and understanding of the greatest dangers to civilization.”

Last December, the German federal government and the federal states (Länder) announced that they were jointly allocating €60 million to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. That is half the amount needed to preserve, maintain, and conserve the authentic remains of the Nazi German Auschwitz concentration camp and extermination center.

“Soon it will be a year since the establishment of the Foundation, which has succeeded in acquiring concrete financial declarations that make up over half of the planned and much-needed Fund. I am pleased that Austria has joined in the effort,” said Director Cywinski.

The purpose of the Foundation is to raise €120 million for a perpetual fund yielding annual interest on the order of €4 to €5 million. This will make it possible to plan and systematically undertake essential conservation tasks. By the same token, and for the first time in its history, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial will have a real chance to carry out a stable, long-term conservation program, allowing it to preserve the remains of the camp for future generations.

The Wallenberg Foundation Proposes to Mexico and Austria to Erect Monuments to Holocaust Savior

The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation Website http://raoulwallenberg.net/

The creator of the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, Baruch Tenembaum, has proposed to the heads of state of Mexico and Austria that both countries erect commemorative monuments to pay tribute to Gilberto Bosques Saldivar, the Mexican diplomat who helped a great number of people persecuted by the Nazis during WWII.

On the occasion of another birthday of Gilberto Bosques Saldivar (1892-1995) next July 15th, the founder of the educational NGO which promotes the values displayed by the persons who helped those persecuted by the Nazi regime has contacted the President of Mexico, Mr. Felipe Calderon, and the Chancellor of Austria, Mr. Werner Fayman, proposing that both nations "pay an unequivocal and ultimate tribute to this hero of the Holocaust, by dedicating a statue or a bust to be placed in both capitals."

Gilberto Bosques was the consul of Mexico in Marseilles, from 1939 till 1943 and from this post he granted visas to Mexico to a great number of Jews, leaders of the Austrian and French resistance movements, Spanish Republicans, as well as others persecuted by the Nazis and their allies. In 1944, Bosques, the author of a vast literary work, wrote in one of his many articles: "I applied my country's policies to provide help, material and moral support to the defenders of the Spanish Republic, to the tireless heroes of the struggle against Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Petain and Laval."

Captured by the Nazis, together with dozens of diplomats from other countries, he remained in captivity in the German city of Bad Godesberg, near Bonn. Following an agreement between Germany and Mexico, Bosques was set free and returned to his country of birth.

Throughout the years, the Wallenberg Foundation has promoted the image of the Mexican Consul Gilberto Bosques Saldívar. Among the initiatives organized or sponsored to honor the memory of this Mexican hero, we underline that which took place on June 4, 2003, when the "Promenade Gilberto Bosques" was inaugurated in Vienna, Austria, in recognition of the staunch opposition by the Mexican Government to the invasion and annexation in 1938. In addition, the Wallenberg Foundation also issued, together with the Israeli Postal Authority, a commemorative stamp in homage to the Mexican savior.

Also, a ceremony took place at the General Consulate of Mexico in New York, at which time the Wallenberg Foundation paid tribute to the Mexican hero. In attendance were daughters Jacqueline and Doris of Herman Weitz who, thanks to one of the many visas granted by Bosques, managed to survive.

Six Million Euros Earmarked for Auschwitz Foundation

Federal Chancellery (03/15/2010)

Austria will contribute 6 million Euros to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation to ensure the preservation of the former concentration camp as a memorial. This was the official message conveyed by Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger to his Polish counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski in Warsaw on March 3, 2010. "This is a duty arising from our history," underlined Spindelegger at a joint press conference.

Spindelegger is Austria's first Foreign Minister paying an official visit to Warsaw after Poland's accession to the EU in May 2004. The two ministers had, however, communicated at the EU level before their bilateral meeting. Cooperation between the two countries was "very good," stated Spindelegger. The Foreign Minister reaffirmed Austria's ambitions to focus activities in the year 2010 on bringing the Western Balkan states closer to the European Union.

15th Anniversary of the Austrian National Fund

Austrian Press Agency (05/14/2010)

Commemoration at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

On the occasion of the 15th Anniversary of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, the Embassy of Austria in Washington, DC, hosted a commemorative event on Thursday, May 13. In addition to representatives from victims’ organizations and the State Department, numerous guests also included several Holocaust survivors from Austria.

Hannah Lessing, Secretary General of the National Fund, presented a retrospective of the National Fund’s achievements over the past fifteen years, as well as a summary of current projects and future initiatives. A major priority of the Fund is the support of older and needy Holocaust survivors. In addition, by selling art objects seized during the Nazi regime whose owners can no longer be established, the proceeds are used to directly benefit needy Holocaust victims. The Fund also maintains memorials and commemoration sites, subsidizes contemporary research projects and supports school projects in the area of Holocaust education.

The U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, Ambassador Christian Kennedy, highlighted the successful cooperation with Austria in the implementation of the 2001 Washington Agreement on issues of restitution and compensation, the important contribution it has made to the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education (in particular during the Austrian Chairmanship in 2008/2009), and Austria’s role in the preparation of the Holocaust Era Assets Conference that took place in June, 2009 in Prague.

Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat who, as the U.S. Government Special Representative for Holocaust Issues, led negotiations with the Austrian Federal Government on the comprehensive 2000/2001 Washington Agreement on issues of restitution and compensation, emphasized that since the establishment of the National Fund, Austria has shown consistent efforts toward assuming its responsibility for the darkest chapter of its history.

By launching a series of new initiatives, Austria took on a leading role among European countries in the field of restitution. Austrian art restitution legislations is unique and exemplary worldwide, as are Austrian social benefits in the way of nursing care which are granted numerous surviving victims of National Socialism. Especially due to the dire financial situation of many Holocaust survivors, programs such as allowances for nursing care and pensions are of central importance today.

Since its establishment, the National Fund has contributed to building bridges to Austrian emigrants who found a new homeland in the United States following the atrocities of Nazi persecution. Apart from payments from the National Fund and the General Settlement Fund, applicants also receive ongoing information on Austrian restitution and compensation programs, as well as on Austria’s allowance for social care and pension benefits granted to survivors in the U.S. Several Holocaust survivors who attended the ceremony at the Embassy expressed their recognition for the work of the National Fund and their appreciation for the many Austrian support programs.

Most important, however, was the recognition of the victim’s suffering and the feeling of not having been forgotten.

For further information, please contact:
Embassy of Austria, Washington, D.C.

The Global Prevention of Genocide: Learning from the Holocaust

Salzburg Global Seminar (www.salzburglgobal.org)

At an international conference hosted by the Salzburg Global Seminar in Salzburg, Austria, from June 28 – July 3, 2010, made possible by a generous grant of 75,000 euros from the Austrian Future Fund, educators, NGOs, policy makers and other experts working in the fields of both Holocaust studies and genocide prevention gathered to consider the root cause of modern genocide and explore ways in which Holocaust education programs can be developed to effectively combat contemporary expressions of racism, anti-Semitism and ethnic conflict in different regions of the world.

The conference was initiated in the hope of using ideas generated by discussions to shape a long-term strategic plan for an annual program on Holocaust education and genocide prevention under the sponsorship of the Salzburg global Seminar, starting in 2011.

The point of departure was based upon the accepted agreement that many states have recognized the importance of teaching about the Holocaust and using it as a mechanism for preventing racism, ethnic conflict and genocide. A growing number of state mandates, as well as impressive private initiatives seek to achieve this.

Nevertheless, the question remains whether these programs and methods of teaching about the Holocaust can actually succeed in linking it with the prevention of ethnic conflict and genocide in today’s world. Are “traditional Holocaust education programs, which focus mainly on the Nazi system and ideology and their tragic effects on the millions of victims, an effective response to, or prophylactic against, the challenges faced by contemporary societies in terms of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, intolerance and discrimination?

Do these education programs reveals the dangers inherent in societal stereotypes and prejudices and inoculate student against them? Does the teaching of the history of the Holocaust at classroom level sufficiently link it to the root cause of contemporary racism or ethnic conflict?

With the conference in 2010, the Salzburg Global Seminar launched a future initiative which will explore these questions and work with educators from targeted regions around the world to develop and implement Holocaust education programs that explicitly link teaching about the Holocaust with an in-depth examination of and confrontation with ethnic conflicts and racism that are experienced at the local level.

The project has an advisory board whose members include former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, Professor of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Yehuda Bauer, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide Francis Deng, Representative for Europe at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Klaus Müller, Founder and President of Genocide Watch Gregory Stanton, Director of the Museums Division of Yad Vashem Yehudit Inbar and President Emeritus for the Carnegie Corporation of New York David Hamburg.

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.

Dear Readers,

This year marks the 15th Anniversary of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, which has been instrumental in reaching out to many Austrian Holocaust survivors in the U.S. The Embassy of Austria in Washington D.C. hosted a commemorative event. On this occasion, an anniversary publication was presented. We are also pleased to feature an interview with U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Ambassador Douglas Davidson on the occasion of his visit to Vienna.

Moreover, we have included a number of articles on recent art restitution cases, such as the famous Schiele painting, “Portrait of Wally,” which was part of the holdings of the private Leopold Foundation.

Other topics concern recent cultural events and several high-level visits of Austrian politicians to Israel, including that of the Austrian Prime Minister and members of the Austrian government.

I would like to take this opportunity to bid farewell to all the readers of Jewish News from Austria. During the last four years, I was pleased to provide you with a broad range of articles on topics of interest occurring within the Jewish community in Austria, including social and cultural news, including news on restitution cases which were published in Austrian media sources.  I would like to thank the entire team of the Press and Information Service for their continued support and tireless assistance during that time. I would also like to express my thanks to the readers of this online newsletter for their feedback. I'd like to wish my successor Alice Irvin, who will arrive in August, as well as the team of the Press and Information Service, all the best and continued success in the future.

Yours sincerely,

Wolfgang Renezeder
Director of the Press & Information Service
Embassy of Austria

New Man in Washington

Illustrierte Neue Welt (May/June 2010)

Ambassador Douglas Davidson was appointed U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues in April, 2010.

Career diplomat, he is also a member of the Senior Foreign Service and leading U.S. State Department Advisor to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), also known as the Helsinki Commission, which monitors and encourages implementing the compliance of human rights principles as stated in the Helsinki Final Act.

As a scholar of the classics, he was previously a Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a transatlantic think-tank. From 2004 – 2008 Ambassador Davidson was Head of the OSCE Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which works to strengthen human rights and rule of law, as well as to bring about democratic reforms. In preceding years, Davidson served from 2001 – 2004 as Deputy U.S. Representative to the OSCE in Vienna, where he participated in multilateral negotiations, including those that led to the first OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism in 2003.

During the course of his career the fifty-five year-old diplomat was posted in Zagreb, Belgrade, Pristina and Peschawar, among others. Henriette Schroeder conducted the following interview with Ambassador Davidson.

When was the office of the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues founded and how would you describe its most important duties?

The office was established a good decade ago, however its origins go back much further to Stuart Eizenstat’s efforts during the middle to the end of the 1990s. As Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State on Issues of the Holocaust Era, he negotiated agreements with Swiss banks, German insurance companies and other institutions in order to obtain restitution for Holocaust victims and a certain measure of justice for Holocaust survivors and their families, should members have survived.

As U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, which political, social and legal issues do you focus on?

The most important political, social and legal problems with which we are confronted are primarily in the field of restitution of property. This involves the return of private property of individuals, of the Jewish Community as well as of looted art. Although most countries within the European Union - particularly the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe – have meanwhile passed laws on restitution, the implementation of such laws remains uneven, to put it mildly. In this area Austria has served as a model which, unfortunately, few other Eastern neighbors have thus far imitated.

Who contacts your office? What kinds of complaints do people come to you with?

Not everyone who contacts my office comes with complaints. Frequently we simply continue the dialogue with European government officials, representatives of Jewish non-governmental organizations, scientists, researchers and other interested people. However, I do often hear from the lawyers of people who are attempting to have their property returned, as well as from survivors and their family members, that they have the feeling the payments which they received from banks, insurance companies and governments were insufficient or that the payments have been unfairly denied to them. We, however, are also increasingly focusing on the dire need of the survivors who, everywhere, are living in poverty, even in the United States and are trying to find creative solutions to ease their need.

How successful has Austria been in regards to the return to rightful owners assets and art works that date back to the NS era? How many cases have still not been resolved and to what extent have the assets and works of art been already restituted?

I would have to leave the statistics to the representatives of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism and to the General Settlement Fund for Victims of National Socialism. I can, however, say that Austria has been more successful than others. Its laws on restitution of property contain what experts call in rem restitution, which means that instead of financial compensation, one actually receives return of the property. Those are ideal conditions which are seldom achieved. Austria has also a law on art restitution which is practically unique since it is in accordance with the principles established long ago by the 1998 Washington Holocaust-Era Assets Conference.

Have the settlement agreements with the Swiss banks and German, French and Austrian governments been concluded?

These agreements have existed at least for a decade. The goal of each of these agreements was to offer restitution payments to people who had claims to bank accounts or insurance policies before the Holocaust, who, however, never received what was owed them. In some cases, as for example the settlement agreements with Swiss banks, “remaining funds” are still being disbursed; others, such as the insurance- and forced labor funds which are covered by the German agreement have been concluded. Nevertheless, Germany, Austria and France continue to maintain funds which make payments in various ways.

Among the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which are you involved with? 

In general, one says that apart from Israel and the United States, the largest group of survivors is living in the “former Soviet Union.” I haven’t been long enough on the job to be able to be specific, but I can say that in this regard we are speaking about mostly those of the Russian Federation, the Ukraine and perhaps Balarus. Experts working in this area are increasingly interested in maintaining and preserving the mass graves in those countries in which so many people were victims of the Holocaust.

What happens to the art works that no one claims?

That’s a good question. It is also a complicated question. Directly following WW II, the Allied Forces tried to return looted art to the individual countries of origin. Then, I believe, it became the responsibility of the governments to return the art works to whom they originally belonged. Some works of art were returned to the families of former owners, to the extent that one could find them. In some cases, however, other members of the same family contested retroactively this decision. Art works which were not claimed - some I assume - are hanging on the walls of museums or private collections. We are also discovering that art works once acquired and brought back to the U.S. by American soldiers after WW II are showing up on the market now that these former soldiers have passed away. All of this today leads to continued legal disputes.

Which role does your office play in the area of Holocaust studies? Which organizations and governments are you working together with?

This is increasingly an important part of our job. The United States, together with Austria and other countries, is a member of the International Taskforce on Holocaust Education, Research and Remembrance. This organization, to which so many different countries like Israel and Argentina belong, is continually expanding. They are subsidizing projects in support of Holocaust studies in their member states. Another organization with which we collaborate is the German Foundation of Remembrance, Responsibility and Future, which implements similar programs. Moreover, there are a series of other such initiatives. We are trying to support and promote as many as possible.

What would it take to see that the Holocaust is remembered in an appropriate and dignified manner? 

It appears to me that we can do this the best by assisting and offering moral support  to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and its sister organizations throughout Europe, even worldwide. We are working also closely together with non-government organizations such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Currently we are participating in intense negotiations that are to help transform the International Tracing Service located in Bad Arolsen into an archive where researchers and scholars have access.

During your first meeting with survivors and children of survivors – what impressed you the most?

A number of things, and one of those is the unbelievable perseverance of the survivors whom I have met. Another is their commitment – as well as that of their children – to guarantee that the Shoah never happens again and to see that their sacrifice is met with justice. A third aspect are the stories which they tell and the things they have achieved in the United States, in Europe and elsewhere despite all that befell them or was done to them in the past.

During the middle of May I had the privilege of being invited to an event held at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C., in which survivors from Austria, along with other guests, attended to commemorate the 15th Anniversary of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for the Victims of National Socialism. The Secretary General of the Fund, Hannah Lessing, spoke in very moving words at the occasion. She is the granddaughter of a person who was murdered in Auschwitz and, nonetheless, continues her commitment in the very country that sent her grandmother to her death. I would like to quote the concluding words taken from her speech because it describes more eloquently than I ever could what my job is really all about.

“No murdered victim of the Holocaust should have perished in such a way. My city is filled with their absence. They have been silenced.

Therefore it is our legacy to give them a voice again. It is one of our biggest challenges to teach the younger generation of the loss in culture and humanity, to make them aware of what we are capable of doing to others - in the hopes that the words “Never again,” will have some meaning.

A survivor once put it very succinctly: “Everyone always asks how we died – no one ever asks how we lived.” I think we should finally begin to ask.”

What is the greatest challenge for you in your new job?

Almost everything.

February 1, 2010

Dear Readers,

The end of 2009 has been marked by a number of significant achievements in the field of restitution and expansion of existing programs: in December, the Austrian Federal Government, the Federal Provinces, as well as the Vienna Jewish Community (IKG) reached an agreement to ensure the restoration and maintenance of the 63 Jewish cemeteries in Austria for the next 20 years. As of August 1, 2009, Austrian retirement benefits for Holocaust survivors have been expanded.

Furthermore, we are happy to provide you with a broad range of articles on recent cultural highlights and news on the Jewish Community Vienna that were published in the Austrian media, including the recent inauguration of a new campus of the Jewish Community in Vienna, a modern home for the elderly.

Finally we have included a few articles on a recent exchange of visits between Austria and Israel.

Yours sincerely,

Wolfgang Renezeder
Director of the Press & Information Service
Embassy of Austria

Federal Chancellor Faymann: “Never forget, never remain silent!“

Austrian Federal Chancellery (02/01/2010)

To mark the International Holocaust Rememberance Day and the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland, leading Austrian politicians condemned the horrible crimes of the NS regime and called for vigilance against anti-Semitism and racism. “The terrible crimes against humanity, which were committed by the murderous regime of the Third Reich based on an inhumane ideology, must never be forgotten”, emphasised Federal Chancellor Werner Faymann in a press release.

Chancellor stressed importance of show “Children of Maison d’Izieu”

Austrian Federal Chancellery (02/01/2010)

Federal Chancellor Werner Faymann is of the opinion that “tolerance“ is a number one priority (not only) in 2010. Under his aegis and at his express wish, the photo exhibition “Children of Maison d’Izieu“ (see also “News from Austria“ No. 24/09) is presented in numerous Austrian vocational schools until the end of 2010.

Museum Judenplatz: “Walls of Sound – Jewish Music Worlds“

Austrian Federal Chancellery (02/01/2010)

Up to 30 May 2010 the Vienna Jewish Museum Judenplatz presents the exhibition “Walls of Sound – Jewish Music Worlds“ featuring Jewish music and Jewish musicians. Only very few people are aware of the fact that many popular melodies and compositions such as “God bless America“, “The Christmas Song“, “Edelweiß“, “An der schönen blauen Donau“, “Hello Dolly“ or “My Funny Valentine“ are of Jewish origin or that some of the most beautiful gospel songs of Christian Afro-American music were composed by George Gershwin.

Agreement on the Restoration and Care of Jewish Cemeteries

Austrian Federal Chancellery (01/04/2010)

The restoration and care of the sixty-three Jewish cemeteries in Austria has been ensured for a period of twenty years by making available a total of 40 million Euros. On December 21, 2009 the Federal government, the provinces (notably Vienna and Lower Austria), various municipalities, as well as the Jewish Religious Community (IKG), reached an agreement in a meeting at the Federal Chancellery.

A fund for the restoration of the cemeteries will be established, to which the Federal Republic will allocate 20 million Euros (i.e. one million Euros annually). The remaining difference of 20 million Euros will be granted by the provinces, municipalities and Jewish communities.

In addition, Lower Austria will cover 25% of the costs arising on its territory, and Burgenland considers a similar approach. The City of Vienna will provide the funds for the restoration of the “Kornhäusl“ (a building named after architect Josef Kornhäusl) located at the Währing Cemetery (costs: 500,000 Euros).

Chancellor Faymann described the agreement on the restoration of the Jewish cemeteries brokered by him as a “matter of responsibility, of “respect for history,” for fellow Jewish citizens and for the cultural-historical heritage of this country.

The Jewish Community referred to it as a “late Chanukah gift.“ The “last open claim under international law” was finally being settled,” informed the Jewish Community. Austria had committed itself to the preservation of the graveyards under the 2001 Washington Agreement, but all efforts had failed.

The Jewish graves are in bad condition, especially in Eastern Austria. This is mainly due to the fact that after the Holocaust there were almost no descendants. Based on the Jewish religion, Jewish graves are not removed and exist forever.