Austrian Jew helps survivors in her country get dollars, recognition

In decades past, when Austrian schoolchildren noticed the Star of David around Hannah Lessing’s neck, they were often jolted into making the same insistent exclamation:

“During the war, my grandfather — he did nothing!”

That’s not the case anymore. It’s not that time has changed what the grandfather did or did not do, but that young Austrians are now willing to accept that he likely did things they shouldn’t be proud of.

“They can deal with me as a Jew and not always have to touch me with silk gloves,” said Lessing, in town earlier this month along with Martin Weiss, Austria’s Los Angeles-based consul general.

Austria’s discarding of its long-claimed title as “Hitler’s first victims” has opened up the opportunity for Lessing, a banker and the secretary general of Austria’s General Settlement Fund for “victims of National Socialism,” to administer a number of Holocaust-related funds as her home country attempts to make amends to Austrian Jews, gypsies and others stripped of property and livelihoods during the wartime years.

And with the December dismissal of a U.S.-launched class-action lawsuit against the Austrian government and a number of its industries, Lessing has gotten the clearance she requires to begin distributing funds from the $210 million General Settlement Fund, which is funded by Austria’s government and industries (in fact, checks began going out just weeks after the court decision).

The general fund received 19,300 claims from individuals, families or heirs, representing 200,000 individual claimants.

The payments are the payoff for years of globetrotting for Lessing, who has traveled to Canada, South America or Australia when elderly Austrian survivors or refugees couldn’t make it to Vienna. On her first trip to San Francisco three years ago, she addressed around 300 Bay Area Austrian Jews.

In the ensuing years, many of the Austrians have kept in contact with each other — and the consulate.

“Many of these people call now just to chat,” said Donald Burns, San Francisco’s honorary Austrian Consul General.

The checks Bay Area Jews and others receive probably won’t change their lives, and the $5,000 to $35,000 or so certainly isn’t intended to fill the gaping hole left in dispossessed Jews’ lives. And while Lessing admits that the children and grandchildren of Austrian Jews affected by the Holocaust are often miffed when they’re compensated at 15 cents on the dollar, the survivors themselves are concerned with something other than money.

The nonagenarian Ottawa couple that had their caretaker drive them two hours each way to hear her speak didn’t come just for the cash. They came because after all this time, their home country had a message for them: “We were wrong.”

“The money is helpful, you can get new bifocals or a hearing aid. But what survivors are writing to us is, after all these years, somebody said ‘Sorry,'” said Lessing.

“When I speak to a 90-year-old Viennese, they are so homesick. Every time, they ask, ‘Is this building still there? Is this street still there?’ I love Vienna, but I don’t think I will ever have such love for the city because I was not forced to leave it.”

Sometimes the money can have a crucial impact on people’s lives. Instead of a lump sum, the general fund can be utilized to pay monthly health and nursing costs.

Yet the most lasting achievement of Lessing’s work may not be fully realized for quite some time. Her 170 employees, including 40 historians, have compiled an economic history of Austria’s Jews from the mid-19th century to 1938, a detailing of their fleecing between 1938 and 1945, and the growth and compensation of their heirs from the end of the war to the present day.

“What’s left behind is, I think, a very nice legacy,” said Lessing.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.