Austria finally facing its past, restitution head says

Staff Reporter

Hannah Lessing
Former Austrian president Kurt Waldheim's lying about his past in 1986 forced the country to come to terms with its own guilt, says an Austrian-Jewish woman who oversees the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in restitution to her country's Holocaust survivors.

"For we Austrians, what was relevant was that he lied [about his membership in the SA stormtroopers]," Hannah Lessing told a breakfast gathering at the Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom. "It was shameful."

Lessing, 42, is a member of the Austrian Parliament and in charge of a special fund that pays financial compensation to Austrians and their families, wherever they live, who were subjugated, tortured and murdered by the Nazis.

The individual amounts, she said, are little more than symbolic - on average between $5,000 and $10,000 - but the symbolism is nonetheless crucial, since no amount can compensate for the suffering that took place in the same country that gave birth to Mozart and Sigmund Freud.

The numbers speak for themselves, Lessing said. Prior to the war, Austria had about 200,000 Jews. Some 130,000 escaped Austria, but of the 65,000 who remained, all but 2,000 perished.

About 800 Austrian survivors live in Canada, some of whom told Lessing in Ottawa that they craved, more than anything else, a sincere apology.

"They told me that they want a letter saying, 'We are sorry and aware that nothing can compensate for what happened.'"

Unfortunately, Lessing said, that was a long time coming. Even when Austria initially took "legal" responsibility for the suffering of its Austrian citizens under the Nazis, moral responsibility was another matter, lost in the European postwar mentality of self-victimization.

It all came to a head with the Waldheim affair, which culminated in chancellor Franco Vranitzky's exhorting his fellow Austrians - a month before the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss - into accepting the fact that they were both victims of and participants in the horrible evils that took place on their land.

In 1995, Lessing, who has a business background, put her own name forward to administer the Austrian National Fund to compensate Austria's Nazi victims.
According to its website, the fund has so far paid out $215 million (Cdn) to 30,000 applicants persecuted by the Nazis, with another $255 million to 20,000 persons who lost property.

As well, a General Settlement Fund of $260 million, which Lessing also oversees for "gaps in restitution," is due to be distributed pending the resolution of class-action lawsuits in the United States against Austria.

Lessing, in an interview after her talk, said that being Jewish was a relevant, although not overriding factor in her being named to administer the fund.

"It helps," she said, "but a lot of people don't even know I am Jewish."

The fund, she noted, also compensates non-Jewish victims of the Nazis, such as the Romani (Gypsies).

Lessing, whose own grandmother perished at Auschwitz, sees as integral to her work the need for her and her staff of 160 - all of them non-Jewish, she pointed out - to reach out to Austrians in communities outside Israel and to help those who approach her department.

"They need to be listened to, to be seen, each and every one of them, as individuals." She said the hardest part of her job was witnessing the deaths of those claimants she has grown close to.

Lessing said that despite its history, Austria now has a lively Jewish community of 8,000, including many from Russia and about 1,000 survivors. The community includes different Jewish religious, social and political groups, including Chabad and Bnai Akiva, and they continue to pray at the one synagogue that remained standing in Vienna after Kristallnacht in November 1938.

Personally, Lessing has absolutely no qualms about wearing her Magen David necklace publicly, and not once has a fellow Austrian made an issue of her Jewishness.

As in any society, she said, anti-Semitism does exist, and much of it today is rooted in Islamic extremism, but she added that since the Waldheim affair, society in her country has made great progress in a sincere effort to face up to its past.

Austrian programs include trips to Israel where participants visit Yad Vashem, working with Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation, compulsory courses on the Holocaust in public schools and the Gedenkdienst program that allow young Austrians to defer military duty by working at Holocaust museums, including the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.

"It's the key to redemption and remembrance," Lessing said.

Lessing also spoke to a group at the Gelber Conference Centre.

About time too, is all one can say. For far too long the Austrians have pretended to have had nothing to do with things and have pretended to have been victims of a Nazi takeover. This is not the case. They were some of the most ardent Nazis and they, in the main, did welcome the Nazi troops marching thru the border points on the day of the Anschluss. We also must not forget that Adolf Hitler was not a German but an Austrian.