by Rafael Medoff
An Austrian Jewish historian and journalist named Stephan Templ is scheduled to soon begin serving a year in prison. Officially, he is accused of misrepresenting information in his family’s application for restitution as victims of Nazism. But there are grounds to fear that he is being punished for exposing the government’s failure to return seized property to its Jewish owners.
Templ’s story is entangled in the troubling history of Austria’s resistance to paying restitution and returning property. Since the day World War II ended, Austrians have claimed that they were not partners of the Nazis but were actually “the first victims of Nazism.”
This attitude was most memorably reflected in a dispute that erupted during the filming of the movie “The Sound of Music” in Salzburg in 1964. Part of the story takes place after the Nazis had taken over Austria, so the filmmakers wanted to display Nazi flags on the homes in those scenes. The Salzburg authorities initially refused to permit the flags to be filmed, lest it appear that the town had willingly sided with the Nazis. They relented only after the producers threatened to use actual newsreel footage that showed the cheering crowds which greeted Hitler and his army when they marched into Austria in 1938.
By maintaining the “we-were-victims-too” fiction, the Austrians created a kind of loophole to avoid paying restitution. Because if Austria was a victim, it was helpless to prevent the Nazis from persecuting the Jews, and therefore could not be held legally or financially responsible for making amends now.
Attempts by Jewish organizations to persuade postwar Austrian governments to consider paying restitution ran into a stone wall of opposition. At one 1953 meeting, after Austrian Chancellor Julius Raab complained about Austria’s alleged victimization, World Jewish Congress chairman Nahum Goldmann sarcastically remarked, “Yes, Herr Chancellor, that is why I have come to ask you how much money the Jews owe the Austrians.”
In 1962, the Austrian government finally agreed to one token payment of just $22-million to some Holocaust survivors; but it also provided compensation to some former Nazi officials.
It took more than thirty years of international pressure and protests to finally bring about the establishment of the Austrian National Fund, which since 1995 has provided a very modest one-time payment of $5,700 each to approximately 28,500 Austrian-born Holocaust survivors around the world. Beginning in 2001, another $7,000 each was paid to about 20,000 survivors for the loss of property. Needless to say, these sums were in many cases but a small fraction of the value of the property that was confiscated.
All of which brings us to Stephan Templ, who together with his colleague Tina Walzer in 2001 authored a book called “Unser Wien,” or “Our Vienna.” The title mimicked the city’s official newsletter for tourists. The book’s subtitle: “Aryanization, Austrian-Style.”
In a devastating chapter on “The Topography of Robbery,” Templ and Walzer listed hundreds of Vienna businesses that were stolen from Jews, with no restitution paid. The list included many of the city’s most famous hotels, movie theaters, restaurants, pharmacies, and estates. The book named both former and current owners, thereby exposing a number of prominent Austrians who have been living on Jewish property that was either stolen outright or purchased at gunpoint for a pittance.
The Austrian government and public were outraged by the book. Templ was widely accused of trying to “undermine Austria.” The truth, of course, was that he had performed a great service by exposing those who were profiting from theft. But soon Templ would himself would become a victim.
In 2005, Templ filed a claim for restitution concerning a hospital to which his elderly mother was the rightful heir. Because of a long running feud between his mother and her sister, Templ did not list the sister’s name in his application. The matter no doubt could have been resolved by the family members in civil court. Instead, the Austrian government chose to prosecute Templ for “criminal fraud.” Convicted and sentenced to a one-year jail term, Templ’s appeals have been exhausted and his prison term is scheduled to commence shortly.
Some of Templ’s supporters say he is being victimized by government officials who want to punish him for what he wrote. Others believe he has simply been caught up in the complex and heartless bureaucracy that governs the Austrian restitution system. Either way, a brave whistleblower is about to spend the next year of his life behind bars.