Austria keeps a tight grip on archives

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Assouline made an extensive inventory of its contents in 1988.

The material, which dates from the late 17th to the 20th century, includes Jewish communal record books and burial society records, as well as school, military and tax lists.

Also included are rabbinical correspondence and numerous letters between Jewish communal figures and the Esterhazy family of Eisenstadt, the longstanding patrons and protectors of Burgenland's Jews.

Assouline maintains that the collection, which Austrian archivists salvaged from the Nazis, is "stolen Jewish property."

"This is property belonging to the Jews of Burgenland, and under normal circumstances it never would have left their possession," she says.

The Austrian government has maintained that the issue is a regional, not federal matter, and officials of the regional archives in Eisenstadt have asserted that they cannot legally send the material to Israel.

Under Austrian law, they explained, material in the possession of a national or provincial archive cannot legally be given to someone outside the country.

Burgenland, famed for its "seven communities" with their illustrious rabbis and yeshivas, was an important center of Austro-Hungarian Jewish life from about 1690 until September 1938, when the Nazis expelled the Jews and declared 10 cities, including Eisenstadt, to be Judenrein, or rid of Jews.

When the Burgenland collection resurfaced after the war in a regional archives in Eisenstadt, the Jewish community in Vienna — the legal heir to all Jewish communities of Austria — requested its return, but to no avail.

A request from an organization of Burgenland Jews in Israel was equally unsuccessful.

Since the early 1980s, Assouline has persuaded successive Israeli ambassadors to Austria to raise the matter with the Austrians.