20 Years of the Austrian National Fund.
By Hannah Lessing
In 2015, the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism celebrates its 20th anniversary. The National Fund was established in 1995 to express Austria’s special responsibility towards the victims of National Socialism.
The years following its establishment have seen the National Fund entrusted with additional tasks in the spirit of remembrance. Domiciled at the Austrian Parliament, the National Fund is operating under the stewardship of a Board of Trustees chaired by the President of the National Council, the Austrian House of Representatives.
For a long time, victims of National Socialism were not afforded the recognition they deserved. Many live under difficult circumstances and require special assistance and support.
The National Fund provides acknowledgement and support to each of them, making gesture payments to surviving victims of National Socialism originating from Austria. The amount of 5,087.10 Euro per person (originally 70,000 Austrian Schilling) is intended as a symbolic acknowledgement of the injustices suffered. All victims of National Socialism are acknowledged by this payment, including victims who for many years received only inadequate recognition in Austria or none at all, such as Roma and Sinti, victims of Nazi court martial or homosexuals.
Applications can be filed with the National Fund indeterminately. Recognition by the National Fund not only means recognition of people’s persecution in individual terms; it is also an important contribution towards raising awareness within Austrian society with regards to the different groups of victims and the different forms of persecution during National Socialist rule.
Washington Agreement and General Settlement Fund
In 2001, Austria signed the Washington Agreement in order to close the gaps and to address deficiencies in previous restitution and compensation measures. In its wake, the General Settlement Fund, administered by the National Fund, was established to offer a comprehensive resolution to open questions of compensation. The Fund offered two forms of compensation: a Claims Committee decided on monetary compensation, and an Arbitration Panel could recommend the actual restitution of publicly owned assets, for the most part real estate. The compensation payments will be completed in the near future.
Compensation of seized tenancy rights
In implementation of the Washington Agreement, the National Fund Law was amended in 2001 to entrust the National Fund with the compensation of seized tenancy rights, household effects and personal valuables. A sum of 150 million U.S. Dollars was earmarked as AI 23 compensation for seized tenancy rights. Applications could be filed until June 30th 2004. Each of the approximately 23,000 applicants or their heirs received a lump sum of 7,630 Euro and an additional payment of 1,000 Euro. Since 2013, the residue that could not be distributed has been used for programs benefitting victims of National Socialism.
Since 1996, the National Fund has been sponsoring projects, taking into account all groups of victims. When awarding project funding, the surviving victims of National Socialism are given priority. As a result, social, medical and psychotherapeutic projects which are of immediate benefit to the victims are particularly well funded. In addition, funding is awarded for projects that serve academic research on National Socialism and the fates of its victims, projects that remember Nazi injustices or safeguard the memory of the victims. Many projects create new opportunities to learn from history, placing particular emphasis on educational and remembrance projects. As of June 2015, the National Fund has sponsored projects and programs in the amount of 25.13 million Euro.
Work in the field of art restitution
In 1998/99, the Art Restitution Law granted the National Fund a mandate for the disposition of “heirless” art objects under public ownership, using the proceeds for the benefit of the victims of National Socialism. Such disposition takes place in the event that no person who would be entitled to the restitution of objects unlawfully acquired in conjunction with the Nazi regime and held in the museums and collections of the Federal Republic and the City of Vienna can be traced. Before the disposition of art objects, all avenues are exhausted in the attempt to find persons possibly entitled to restitution. To achieve this, the National Fund assists the art restitution committees of the Republic and the City of Vienna in their search for heirs.
The National Fund has run a comprehensive art database at www.artrestitution.at, containing information on over 9,000 objects in public collections and museums of the Republic and the federal states, and from the University of Vienna Library. It allows victims of Nazi art confiscation or their descendants to carry out a targeted search for seized objects which are suitable for restitution. Objects whose owners can no longer be ascertained are transferred to the National Fund for disposition. In 2010, 8,000 books from the holdings of the Austrian National Library were transferred to the National Fund and repurchased by the Austrian National Library. The National Fund uses the proceeds from the disposition to benefit the victims of National Socialism.
Redesign of the Austrian exhibition at the Auschwitz Memorial
In 2011, the National Fund was entrusted with the coordination of the redesign of the Austrian exhibition at the Auschwitz memorial. A central aim of the redesign is to express Austria’s revised understanding of its history: The exhibition will not only portray the fates of Austrian victims in Auschwitz but also the involvement of Austrians in the perpetration and facilitation of the crimes committed there. It must be designed for all future generations – first and foremost as a place of remembrance of the Holocaust, but also as an expression of a new historical awareness.
Restoration of the Jewish cemeteries in Austria.
Many of the Jewish cemeteries – around 60 throughout Austria – are in poor condition after having been destroyed in the years following 1938. In 2011, in line with Austria’s commitment in the Washington Agreement, the federal government began to release the funds necessary to support the restoration. The National Fund has been entrusted with the administration of the payments of up to 20 million Euro over the next 20 years, to be disbursed by the Fund for the Restoration of the Jewish Cemeteries in Austria up to the amount matched by the owners of the cemeteries once the respective municipalities confirm to maintain the cemeteries for at least 20 years.
Findbuch for Victims of National Socialism
In 2013, the Findbuch for Victims of National Socialism was launched – an online platform enabling and facilitating the search for files on Nazi property seizures and post-war restitution and compensation measures, which are held in Austrian archives. It is intended to assist historical and other academic researchers as well as to help Austrian victims of National Socialism and their descendants find links to their families’ history.
International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, IHRA
Programs for research and educational work on the Holocaust spanning many countries are implemented by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), until 2012 the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, ITF. Austria has been an active member of the IHRA since 2001. The National Fund acts as the Austrian coordination office. Austria held the chairmanship of the IHRA between March 2008 and March 2009.
Since 2005, the National Fund has been publishing books telling life stories of Holocaust survivors. In 2011, the Fund started publishing the series “Lives Remembered. Life Stories of Victims of National Socialism.” Copies of this series can be ordered from the National Fund and are provided free of charge to Austrian schools for use in class and school libraries. Life stories can also be found on the National Fund’s website, www.nationalfonds.org. By publishing and distributing these valuable testimonials, the National Fund hopes to be making a contribution towards Austria’s collective memory, preserving the life stories for future generations not only as a warning but also as a sign of hope. As such, these personal memories and narratives of many thousands of people, which were entrusted to the National Fund, are a historical and social treasure.
Hannah Lessing is Secretary General of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria, the General Settlement Fund for Victims of National Socialism, and of the Fund for the Restoration of the Jewish Cemeteries in Austria. In 2001, she participated in the negotiations on compensation issues conducted by Under-Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat as a member of the Austrian delegation headed by Ambassador Sucharipa, which led to the Joint Statement signed in Washington. Hannah Lessing is also the curator of “Lessing presents Lessing” – an exhibition displaying her selection of her father’s photographs. It will be presented at the Austrian Cultural Forum NY until January 3, 2016, followed by the Austrian Cultural Forum DC in early 2016.