In a bizarre case stirring up Austria’s Nazi past, architectural historian Stephan Templ has been sentenced to three years in prison for “defrauding the Austrian Republic.”
Templ, 53, has been an outspoken critic of Austria’s poor post-war record of returning Aryanized properties to their rightful Jewish owners.
His 2001 book “Unser Wien” (Our Vienna), co-written with Tina Walzer, lists several hundred of the most prominent Jewish-owned businesses and properties seized by Austrian Nazis after the 1938 Anschluss and never returned.
A 2000 treaty between the U.S. and Austria pledged the return of Nazi-looted property to owners and their heirs, but the process remains slow.
Templ is accused of having defrauded the Republic by failing to name an aunt in the restitution of a private hospital near Vienna’s elegant Ringstrasse.
The conviction, which is being appealed, has perplexed observers while shedding fresh light on Austria’s uneasy efforts to face its Nazi past.
Three years ago, a state panel returned the sanatorium to 39 heirs of Lothar Furth.
Furth and his wife had been forced to clean the sidewalk in front of the clinic, according to official records. The couple stole back into the operating room and injected themselves with poison. “We have had enough,” Dr. Furth wrote in a suicide note.
The Furths died childless. After the war’s end, Austria’s minimal restitution laws prevented their heirs from reclaiming the building. (Curiously, in August 2000, just months before the restitution treaty was signed, Austria’s ministry of Economy advertised the sanatorium for sale in Vienna’s Standard newspaper.)
“Austria, unlike Germany, only belatedly came to terms with the Holocaust,” said Stuart E. Eizenstat, the U.S. diplomat who negotiated the 2000 restitution treaty.
“They have come light years from where they once were,” he said, speaking from his law offices in Washington, D.C.
For decades property, art works and bank accounts that had been confiscated by the Nazis remained under Austrian control.
The purpose of the treaty, said Eizenstat, “was to provide imperfect justice to the survivors or the families of victims.”
Just how imperfect became clear to Templ in 2005, when he learned that a local lawyer and genealogist were seeking Furth’s heirs. The search was funded by Hoerner Bank, which finances inquiries for missing heirs and takes a piece of the recovered inheritance as its fee.
Templ presented a claim on behalf of his mother, Helene, a Holocaust survivor who traces her lineage to Furth’s grandparents. In 2009, a state panel returned the building to the heirs, who eventually sold it.
Helene Templ received about 1.1 million Euros for her claim. Today the property is being developed into luxury apartments.
That might have been the end of the affair. But in 2011 a notary working for the bank informed Helene’s sister, Elisabeth Kretschmer, that she’d missed her chance to apply for a share in the property.
Estranged from Helene for a quarter century, Kretschmer complained to a Vienna prosecutor that she’d been denied her stake.
Prosecutor Kurt Hankiewicz indicted Templ for defrauding the Republic because, he charged, the aunt could potentially have renounced her share in favor of the state.
In fact, there is no indication that Kretschmer, now 84, would have done so. She has told the court that had she known about the inheritance in time, she would “immediately” have filed a claim and not let the state collect her share.
Judge Sonja Weis said Templ should have known his aunt was an heir and that he’d illegally left her out of his claim.
Templ responded that he was required only to demonstrate to the restitution panel that his mother’s claim was legitimate. Since he had no legal responsibility to name other heirs, he said, he has been found guilty of a crime that could not have been committed.
“Why should I be responsible for naming all the heirs?” he said in an interview, adding that Hoerner Bank and its lawyer, notary and genealogist had not mentioned his mother and aunt in the claims they prepared, and had not been charged.
“I don’t think the burden should be on the claimant to find all the heirs,” Eizenstat said.
“Once an heir brings a claim, the government should publish it and say we have heirs, are there any more out there?”
Eva Blimlinger, who directed the Austrian Historical Commission’s search for confiscated property, agrees, calling Templ’s case “crazy.”
“It’s the duty of the Arbitration Panel of the General Settlement Fund to prove these things,” she said, “not of the people who make the application for restitution.”
Templ is now waiting for Austria’s Supreme Court to rule on his appeal.
“There are people who want to make this right, but then the Austrian Republic hands over this historic task to a machinery of bureaucrats and to notaries working on commission,” Templ said by telephone from Vienna.
“They forget why they are doing this and you end up with not with imperfect justice, but with perfect injustice.”
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