Efforts are under way to resolve a 3-year-old stalemate that has kept the Austrian government from paying a $210 million Holocaust-era property claims settlement and to provide the Austrian Jewish community with the money it needs to continue operating.
Israel Singer, president of the Conference on Jewish and Material Claims Against Germany, said he has proposed funding the Jewish community using unallocated money from a $400 million fund created to pay surviving slave laborers. The deadline for filing slave labor claims expires Dec. 31 and about $150 million remains.
"There are quite a number of people in Austria who understand that we need to come to some resolution, that this can't continue to go on," Singer said. "The Jewish community is in a situation in which it is paralyzed, and the old people [seeking money from property claims] are going to die before they get paid."
The money should be used to ensure that the "Austrian Jewish community is made a viable and living community that is safe and secure," he said, adding that he is "cautiously optimistic" that a resolution can be achieved.
Singer said he has spoken with Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel twice in the last two years to impress upon him the need to help the Jewish community. During a meeting in August, Singer said he suggested using some of the remaining slave labor fund.
"I feel he wants to resolve this issue," Singer said of Schussel. "We should use the environment of good will to try to create an understanding as opposed to acrimony."
Austria has insisted on legal closure before it begins paying the $210 million property settlement, but a lawsuit by the Austrian Jewish community seeking to compel the government to pay the community's operating costs has prevented that.
Charles Moerdler, a Manhattan lawyer representing the 6,000-member Austrian Jewish community in the suit here, said he made a similar offer to Singer's to Austrian government attorneys several weeks ago. In a phone interview from Israel, Moerdler said there has been no response and that next week he plans to write to Austrian officials requesting a response in 10 days.
If it is not positive, "we will do what we have to do to move this forward," he said.
Among the options under consideration, Moerdler said, is filing a friend-of-the-court brief in behalf of the Jewish community in a case the U.S. Supreme Court recently decided to hear involving an American, Maria Altmann, 87, who is seeking ownership of six paintings that were looted by the Nazis from her family in Austria.
The paintings, by Gustav Klimt and valued at $150 million, hang in one of Austriaís state museums in Vienna. Austria contends the paintings were willed to the state in 1925 and that the Nazi looting had nothing to do with the ownership.
The U.S. Supreme Court will not decide the ownership issue, only whether Altmann as a private citizen can file a claim against a foreign country stemming from Holocaust-era actions.
The high court's decision would likely have an impact on the Jewish community's suit, Whiteman vs. Austria, and therefore no action is expected on it until the ruling, which is expected in June.
A lawyer familiar with the Austrian Jewish community's case, which is before Manhattan Federal Judge Shirley Wohl Kram, said because there is so little case law on the issue of foreign sovereign immunity, whenever the Supreme Court decides to weigh in on the issue, every pending case is affected.
But many aging Jews who could receive as much as $2 million for property they lost in Austria fear they will not live to see such payments.
"They are dying at the rate of one-and-a-half persons per day," said Hannah Lessing, administrator of Austria's National Fund, which oversees the restitution funds. "This is awful. ... I turn around and all the clients I have are passing away."
Lessing said that although the money from property claims would also go to heirs, her desire is to ensure that the survivors themselves receive the money.
"Their medical costs are rising every day," Lessing said. "It's really painful."
The faster obstacles are resolved, the faster claims would be paid, Lessing said, noting that Jews have been filing about 90 percent of the claims since the agreement was signed in January 2001.
Austria has made some 19,000 payments of $7,000 each to former Austrian Jews for the loss of rental apartments, business leases and personal belongings under the Austrian National Fund. It also is paying approximately $900,000 a month for nursing care allowances for 1,200 former Austrian Jews.
Ariel Muzicant, president of the Austrian Jewish community, said that although Austria's provinces have voted to give the Jewish community $18 million, the donation is contingent upon the Austrian central government also making a contribution.
He said the Jewish community has $55 million in outstanding bank loans and is seeking a $27 million contribution from the Austrian central government payable over 10 years to erase those debts and put the community on a sound footing.
Muzicant said that because of the money shortage, the Jewish community had to trim its budget by 25 percent. As a result, he said, it had to fire religious school teachers, informed the cantor that his contract would not be renewed July 1 and fired many of its private security guards.
The Austrian government has said that its police would provide the protection the Jewish community needs, but Muzicant said security guards are needed to check the bags of those who enter the Jewish communityís schools, community centers and offices.
"We are now in tremendous danger," he said, "and Austrian authorities know that. The question is, what is it going to do about it. Jewish children may be killed in Jewish schools because the government will not provide us with the funds we need."
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