Hannes Richter

The 15th Anniversary of the Austrian National Fund

Hannes Richter

 

Hannah Lessing

The Change in Austria’s Policies of Coming to Terms with its Past

Established on June 30, 1995 upon initiative of the Austrian Federal Government, the Austrian National Fund was created at a time of active discussion of Austria’s moral responsibility for crimes committed during the Nazi regime on the territory of present-day Austria. Leading politicians began to address Holocaust issues, assuming responsibility for recognizing its country’s wartime debt to Holocaust survivors.

Speeches by Chancellor Franz Vranitzky and President Thomas Klestil in Israel in 1993 and 1994 were important milestones along the way. This recognition coincided with the 50th anniversary of the end of WW II, eliciting at the same time the creation of the National Fund as an expression of Austria’s special responsibility to victims of National Socialism.   

   

Commemorative event against violence and racism on May 5, 2008 in the historic assembly hall of the Austrian Parliament

The importance and legitimacy of the National Fund as a sign of the recognition, although belated, of these victims by the Republic of Austria has always been supported by Holocaust survivors and Austrian representatives alike.  What was not foreseen, however, was its development into one of the most important points of contact for thousands of Holocaust survivors. Over the years it has served as an institution offering Holocaust survivors updated information on restitution legislation and social programs on a regular basis. Its programs continue to support needy Holocaust survivors throughout the world, address questions on restitution of looted art and help create awareness of the atrocities of the Nazi period and its consequences through research and remembrance projects.

The Worldwide Search for Survivors

A key element of the National Fund’s work in the early phases was the search for persons eligible for a payment. With the support of the Austrian embassies and various victims’ organizations, the Fund’s Secretary General Hannah Lessing and her team were able to reach out to Holocaust survivors living abroad and provide them with detailed information on filing an application.

Thanks to the personal commitment and dedication of the staff of the National Fund and cooperating institutions, the applications filed by Holocaust survivors could be promptly processed. Today the National Fund’s files contain the data of over 30,000 applicants or their heirs - living in the United States, Israel or Great Britain, and even as far away as Malawi, Zambia and Thailand - who are recipients of payments from the National Fund. In addition, some of them receive Austrian pension payments or qualify for nursing care allowances which have been extended to Holocaust survivors. 

New Areas of Responsibility 

Since its establishment in 1995, the National Fund has been entrusted with several additional programs. In 2001 the Fund was responsible for administering the compensation measures stipulated in the “Washington Agreement” between the governments of Austria and the U.S to address open questions of restitution, including payments for seized tenancy rights and social programs.     

In addition, the Fund established an online database (www.artrestitution.at) of art and cultural objects located today in museums and collections of the Republic of Austria or of the City of Vienna which might have been seized under the National Socialist regime. This helps to clarify the issue of restitution of such objects.       

Another initiative involved recording the personal stories of Holocaust victims. These oral history narratives not only preserve memories for future research but also for future generations interested in Austrian-Jewish life before the Shoah. Over the years, the National Fund has also been instrumental in supporting many archival and scholarly research projects.

One of them was a joint project of the Jewish Community Vienna in cooperation with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. to preserve a massive archive of the once largest German-speaking Jewish community in Europe, discovered in the year 2000 in a vacant apartment in one of the community’s buildings in Vienna. Some of these materials are part of a cache of approximately two million pages of Holocaust-era documents and include emigration documents and deportation lists detailing the final years of the Viennese Jewish community. Today, researchers and family members of Holocaust victims have access to such vitally significant sources of information.      

Moreover, the Fund is also devoted to the education of future generations and the training of teachers to raise awareness among young people of Austria’s problematic, historical legacy. A large-scale project to promote Holocaust education in schools focuses on a new approach to contemporary history. Today, the Austrian Ministry for Education provides schools with experts and Holocaust survivors to not only speak about National Socialism and extremism, but also to accompany school excursions to former concentration camps, such as Mauthausen and Ebensee, among others. Since 1996, the National Fund has provided 16 million Euros for 700 such projects.    

In addition, the National Fund has been supporting victims’ organizations, such as AMCHA (Israel), SELF HELP (New York) or ESRA (Austria) by providing social and emotional support to victims of National Socialism; allocating funds for Jewish community organizations’ administering psychotherapeutic assistance to survivors unable to come to terms with the trauma suffered during the war; offering food provisions for the needy; caring for homebound patients with serious or chronic illnesses; and providing legal advice or counseling on many issues.      

With the implementation of such initiatives by the National Fund has come an unexpected renewal of the survivors’ relationship to Austria. Not only in the remarks made by survivors, but also the fact that at no other time has there been such strongly-expressed interest in returning to Austria, either as a visitor or as a permanent resident. In this respect the National Fund has helped survivors to build a new bridge to their former homeland.      

Equally significant are the many young Austrians who have expressed the wish to learn more about what happened during the NS era, while others serve in Holocaust museums and remembrance institutions in the United States and elsewhere.

 

Austria’s Leading Role in Art Restitution and Social Payments

On the occasion of the 15th Anniversary of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria, U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues  Christian Kennedy highlighted the successful cooperation with Austria in the implementation of the 2001 Washington Agreement on issues of restitution and compensation and 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).

He also cited 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 2001 Washington Agreement, emphasized that since the establishment of the National Fund, Austria has shown consistent efforts to assume the full 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. Austria was one of the first countries to implement the Washington Principles of Art Restitution adopted at the Washington Holocaust-Era Assets Conference in 1998 by entrusting independent commissions to research the provenance and to restitute all previously NS-confiscated objects of art currently held by Federal museums or collections.

In addition, the Austrian Art Restitution Law stipulates that those art objects whose owners cannot be established are to be transferred to the National Fund, which subsequently sells the items and uses the proceeds for the benefit of victims of the Nazi regime.

Austrian art restitution legislation is unique and exemplary as are Austrian social benefits granted numerous surviving victims of National Socialism. Austria extends special benefits to all its former citizens who are Holocaust survivors or who were forced to flee Austria during the Holocaust: It allows them to obtain an old age pension on favorable terms, and it extends to them very generous Austrian nursing home benefits even when the survivor resides outside Austria.      

As a consequence of the economic downturn in the past few years, pension benefits have declined and hundreds of thousands of survivors throughout the world face significant health problems, living in dire financial circumstances. Calculations by experts suggest that total social welfare needs of survivors will slightly increase for the next four to five years. As Eizenstat also emphasized on the occasion of a recent hearing in the U.S. Senate, the humanitarian needs of those who have already suffered so much during their lives are becoming increasingly critical and urgent.