Ruling aids Austrian survivorslong road to compensation

berlin | A U.S. court decision has paved the way for final compensation payments to Holocaust survivors from Austria.

The Dec. 7 decision by a U.S. District Court in New York to dismiss class-action lawsuits against Austrian businesses was greeted with relief by survivor organizations and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, parties to a settlement negotiated with the Austrian government.

Neither the Austrian government nor businesses had been willing to agree to payments without insurance against future lawsuits. The resulting legal closure means payments are imminent, said Gideon Taylor, claims conference executive vice president.

But, “like most restitution payments, this is not an issue of money,” Taylor emphasized in a telephone interview. “The amounts are small, but the property losses were large. This is about symbolism … what was supposed to be a symbolic gesture turned into a legal argument.”

Austrian restitution funds totaled about $500 million. But the component from the $210 million General Settlement Fund for Austrian Jews was held up until Dec. 7. That’s when Judge Shirley Wohl Kram of the Southern District of New York dismissed the cases brought against the government and industry of Austria by some Jews of Austrian background.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had dismissed remaining Holocaust-related lawsuits against Austria, called GSF a preferable method of ensuring payments to victims of Nazism and had ordered her to resolve the cases.

“We look upon this with great favor,” said Henry Wegner, a survivor from Austria who in 1966 co-founded the American Council for Equal Compensation of Nazi Victims from Austria.

The group was party to negotiations with the Austrian government, together with Israeli survivors, the Claims Conference, the Austrian National Fund and attorney Stuart Eizenstat.

Wegner had faced resistance from some Jews in Austria who wanted to press ahead with their lawsuits. But Ariel Muzicant, head of the Jewish Community of Austria, was delighted by the dismissal of the suits and expected “people may get their first payments on Dec. 16.”

He said that he had convinced “26 plaintiffs to consent to withdraw their claims and there is just one left. And the one guy is suing everybody now.”

Hannah Lessing, director of the Austrian National Fund, which will distribute the payments out of the GSF, said that of the 30,000 claimants who filed for compensation, only 15,000 are still living. The fund tries to reach the oldest claimants first, she said. In all, there are some 19,000 valid claims.

Approved claimants will be asked to sign a waiver, according to which they will receive 10 percent of the amount they claimed. Those who agree may receive an additional payment from funds that remain after the initial distribution. The other option is to reject the waiver and hope that the remaining funds will be sufficient to provide a compensation of more than 10 percent.

The GSF funds amount to symbolic compensation for stolen assets, including real estate, liquidated businesses, bank accounts, securities, mortgages, insurance policies, personal effects and the loss of education and jobs.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.