Jewish Community Takes Legal Action Against the Federation

Die Presse (07/26/2008)

Jewish Community Takes Legal Action Against the Federation
Judith Lecher

Restitution. Since 2001 Austria is obligated to maintain the Jewish cemeteries. But neither the Federation nor the Regional Governments want to pay.
Vienna. Since 2001 the Federation, Regional Governments and Communities are fighting over who is responsible for maintaining the Jewish cemeteries in Austria. To this day there is no overall concept. The Jewish Community Vienna’s (JCV) patience has been tried and now it wants to take legal action against the Federation. “Our attorneys have already been authorized,” says JCV President Ariel Muzicant to die Presse.
The basis of the lawsuit: In year 2001, Austria and the USA concluded the so-called Washington Agreement. According to this agreement under international law, Austria committed itself to symbolical compensation payments to Jewish victims’ organizations, including the maintenance of more than sixty Jewish cemeteries.

“Austria is trying to shirk its responsibilities in that it does a little bit here, a little bit there,” says Muzicant. Maintaining all Jewish graves is not, however, something that has been guaranteed, in contrast to the graves of SS soldiers. The country is “morally responsible and since 2001 is also bound by contract,” to take care of the 350,000 Jewish graves. “Austria is defaulting,” summarizes Muzicant. Beginning in the fall, the JCV will begin “taking a series of steps.”

What are the effects such a lawsuit could have? In the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which since 2001 has agreed to the implementation of the Washington Agreement, one considers it to have very little or no effect at all. Ultimately it concerns an agreement under international law, the implementation of which “can only be contested in the USA,” comes the answer to the questions posed by die Presse. Moreover, in connection with the Washington Agreement, it was agreed upon that should there be any additional lawsuits relating to questions of restitution, the USA will decide in favor of Austria. “It is too early to seriously make a prognosis. First of all we have to wait whether or not legal action will actually be taken.

When pursuing this case, Muzicant is anticipating an agreement between the Federation and Regional Governments within the next few years. According to the wish of President of the National Council Barbara Prammer, the jurisdiction to be taken should be based upon the exemplary case of the Jewish cemetery of Währing.

All preliminary research on issues of restoration will begin in the fall. Historian Tina Walzer, who did an inventory of 8,000 graves in the Biedermeier cemetery for over two years, will claim which work is deemed necessary and significant. The 300,000 euros designated for the preliminary project comes from the National,- and Future Fund, which are both supported by Federal funds. According to the JCV, restoration itself will cost some 14 million euros.

Graves Are Sinking into the Soil
According to historian Tina Walzer, some of the historical and most valuable graves already lay in ruins. Apart from having been exposed to the elements, the vegetation is not conducive for preserving them: decaying branches have fallen onto the graves, tenacious roots from the prevalent “Götterbaume” have raised up the gravestones.

In the meantime the Federal Historic Preservation Office (BDA) is becoming actively involved. A landscape architect will study the original construction of the cemetery, the level of which is meanwhile fifteen centimeters higher than when it was erected in 1748. Vienna conservationist of the BDA Friedrich Dahm explains that “the graves are sinking into the soil.”