For Holocaust Families, Restitution and Reconnection

Washington Post (11/24/04)

Nora Boustany

Hannah M. Lessing describes herself as a recovering banker with a mission. For 10 years, she has been secretary general of Austria's National Fund and General Settlement Fund, organizations that investigate restitution claims by victims of the Nazi Holocaust.

Lessing, an outgoing 41-year-old with raven hair, started out with five employees. Her staff is now 110.

When she started in 1995, her organizations had a fund of $210 million, authorized by the Austrian National Assembly. Money has been added since then, and she has devised investment options to keep generating income and create a self-sustaining operation.

Lessing says her staff has investigated 180,000 claims. The victims she has sought out have included not only surviving Jews but also gypsies, orphans who were placed in homes for delinquents, people who were abused in scientific studies and homosexuals.

She travels to the United States, Israel, Europe, Argentina and other countries, reaching out to survivors and encouraging them to stay in touch with her Vienna staff. She said her work is repeated catharsis. Tears and effort notwithstanding, she said, the quest to address Austria's past ambivalence about Nazi cruelties almost seems like a wish come true.

Over the years, her databank has helped cousins reunite and long-lost childhood friends locate one another.

When she makes contact, some survivors shun any ties to Austria, rebuffing efforts for symbolic compensation. Others embrace gestures of healing from a once-irreplaceable homeland, drawing comfort from cultural connections.

"Some just do not want to have anything to do with Austria or make peace with it. Others call late at night wanting to chat about how to make apfelstrudel," she said.

Of 4,500 claimants in Israel, only 3,200 are alive, Lessing said. In the United States, almost everybody has been located.

"The older they get, it is long-term memory and nostalgia that stays; short-term memory goes," Lessing said in an interview last week. "Some have died; others are in their late nineties."

In her passport, Lessing keeps a 1999 letter from a man who lost 55 members of his family in 1939. He wanted to find a cousin he believed had escaped, as he did, when they were children. Regi S. was found and told of her relative, Kurt T.

She got in touch with him immediately.

"You gave me back my family," the man wrote to Lessing. "In case you go knocking on heaven's door, take this letter with you. They will let you in without further ado."

Lessing is the descendant of Holocaust victims. Her father fled Vienna at age 16, immigrating to Palestine in 1939. He left behind his mother, 50, and grandmother, 94, who were killed in Auschwitz in October 1944. Her father returned to Austria in 1947.

He blamed himself for the deaths, Lessing said. "Every survivor child's dream is to make it up to the parents. I often dreamed I could find my grandmother and bring her home to my dad," she said.