Austria Is About To Send This Jew to Jail for Making a Restitution Claim. Why?
Stephan Templ, known for documenting stolen Jewish property, was convicted after failing to name other heirs—but sees it as payback
On April 4, Stephan Templ, a Jewish 53-year-old architectural historian, will report to an Austrian prison to spend the next three years in jail. His crime: helping his mother, a Holocaust survivor, reclaim her share of a 19th-century hospital off Vienna’s Ringstrasse that was seized by the Nazis from a relative in 1938.
According to the three-judge panel that convicted him last April, Templ—who has written extensively about Austria’s poor record of providing restitution for Nazi-looted art and property—himself deliberately defrauded the state of what one judge insisted was Austria’s right to claw back a piece of the proceeds.
Last month, Austria’s Supreme Court upheld Templ’s conviction. Now Templ’s last recourse is an appeal of his sentence to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The decision, which came three years after a state restitution panel returned the hospital property to 39 heirs, including Templ’s mother Helene, has left observers perplexed and underscores Austria’s stumbling effort to face its Nazi past.
The verdict upended the usual order of business surrounding Holocaust restitution proceedings, making a claimant—in this case, Templ—responsible for finding heirs and criminally liable for failing to do so. What makes Templ’s case even more curious is that it hinges on the idea that Austria has a legitimate ownership claim in a property everyone agrees was stolen from Jews, despite a landmark treaty signed with the United States in 2000 that compelled the state to return any looted property still in government hands to its legitimate owners or their heirs.
Templ believes he is being singled out for political reasons. In 2001, he and his partner Tina Walzer wrote a book called Unser Wien—or Our Vienna—that detailed the history and ownership of some 350 prominent buildings, landmarks, and businesses that had been Aryanized after the Anschluss. The book put many Austrians on notice that Nazi-era theft and postwar re-appropriation of looted Jewish property was not a buried issue and earned the pair the front-page headline “A New Campaign Against Austria” in the mass-circulation tabloid Kronen Zeitung.
“Now I believe this is a vendetta against me,” Templ said in an interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He claims the court is trying to protect Austrian bureaucrats who’ve made a deal with what he calls “the private Holocaust business” of lawyers, bankers, notaries, and genealogists who take generous commissions for brokering the return of looted property to generations of heirs. (I met Templ more than 20 years ago, while working as a correspondent in Central and Eastern Europe, and he has been a source of information over the years on a range of subjects from the history of 20th-century architecture to the ownership of Holocaust-looted artworks.)
“The main problem is the misunderstanding that the Republic of Austria is some kind of victim in this whole affair,” said Eva Blimlinger, the former director of the Austrian Republic’s Historical Commission, which handled the search for looted property still in government hands. “There is no damage to the Republic of Austria.”
The private hospital at Schmidgasse 14 was known as the Sanatorium Fürth, after its owner, Dr. Lothar Fürth, a Jew who converted to Christianity. In 1938, the building was seized by the Nazis, who forced both Fürth and his wife to scrub the sidewalks in front of the building. Unable to bear the humiliation, they committed suicide a few weeks later, injecting themselves with poison in an operating room. “We have had enough,” Fürth wrote in a suicide note.
The building served as the U.S. Consulate in Vienna from 1945 until 2007, when the building was vacated in preparation for returning it to the heirs. While Germany paid reparations to Holocaust victims as early as the 1950s, and the neighboring Czech Republic by the mid-1990s had returned much of the property looted by Communists and Nazis, Austrians clung to the idea that they, too, had been victims of Nazi aggression, and the government was slow to begin the process of restitution. While some property was returned or compensated for in the aftermath of the war, it wasn’t until 2000—55 years after the end of the Third Reich—that Austria formally agreed to set up a system to manage the return of Nazi-looted property still held by the state to Holocaust survivors and the heirs of those who had perished and to compensate slave laborers.
The Fürths had no children, so under Austrian law their property went to the relatives of his parents and their descendants. In 2003, a claim to return the building to the Fürths’ heirs was rejected by the Austrian government, which argued that a 1966 payment to a government restitution fund had settled the matter.
In 2005, Templ learned that his mother was a potential heir to the Fürth property after a Vienna lawyer retained by Hoerner Bank, a German institution that finances searches for missing heirs in exchange for a share of restituted property, announced a claim was being made on behalf of nine other heirs. Templ, whose family’s property in pre-War Czechoslovakia was seized first by the Nazis and again by the country’s Communist regime, is a descendent of Fürth’s grandparents on his maternal side. He filed a claim on behalf of his mother, Helene Templ, whose share turned out to be worth more than a million euros, or about $1.5 million.
In his paperwork, Templ didn’t mention his mother’s estranged sister, Elisabeth Kretschmer, also an heir to the estate. Prosecutor Kurt Hankiewicz argued in charging Templ that by failing to name Kretschmer as a potential heir, Templ cheated not his aunt, but rather the Republic of Austria. The argument is Kafkaesque: Had Kretschmer been awarded a share in the estate, Hankiewicz reasoned, and chosen not to claim it, the share would have reverted to the state. But the state, under the American agreement, isn’t allowed to own any property confiscated from Jews. Furthermore, Kretschmer said in a deposition that she never would have renounced her claim to the property in favor of the state in any case.
The ruling in Templ’s case, written by a judge named Sonja Weis, said Templ should have known his aunt was an heir and that he’d illegally left her out of his claim. Templ, Weis wrote in her ruling, “consistently concealed” his aunt’s existence in order to increase his mother’s share of the estate—“and thus unlawfully enrich himself.”
Templ says he never made any assertions that his mother had no siblings and in any event had no responsibility to name other heirs but rather only to show Austria’s restitution panel that his mother’s claim was legitimate. “This scandalous court rules that they should get the Fürth building back again,” Templ told me in a telephone interview last week. “That’s just Aryanizing it all over again.”
Even those who disagree with Templ’s belief that the court held special animus for him because of his earlier work highlighting Austria’s poor record on restitution say something went amiss in Templ’s case. “I don’t share the view that it’s something personal against Stephan,” said Blimlinger, who is now rector of Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. “He’s caught in the wheels of the bureaucracy of the courts.”
The Austrian restitution system is designed to trip up the heirs who seek belated justice, says E. Randol Schoenberg, a Los-Angeles-based attorney who went to the U.S. Supreme Court to force the Austrian government to return a group of paintings, including a gold-leafed portrait by Gustav Klimt, to the heirs of Holocaust victims. “If your car is stolen you go to the police to get it back,” Schoenberg said in an interview. “There was never any official agency designated to help Jews get their property back.”
Templ also notes the original claim filed in 2003 by a group of attorneys, notaries, and a genealogist hired by the Hoerner Bank left out not just Templ’s aunt and mother but several dozen other relatives, some of whom Templ has since tracked down in Berlin and New York. Ultimately, the bank filed a list of 38 heirs, which did not include either of the sisters. Yet none of those claimants, nor the bank’s genealogist, notary, or attorney were charged with fraud as Templ was.
“I don’t see how it’s his responsibility,” Eizenstat said in a phone conversation last week. “The burden shouldn’t be on the claimant, it should be on the state.” And even if somehow Templ did have a responsibility to name his aunt, it “isn’t something that should be a criminal matter against him,” Eizenstat added. “It ought to be resolved in the family or in a civil court proceeding in Austria.”
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In 1941, Gertrude van Tijn traveled to Lisbon in a last-ditch effort to save Europe’s Jews from annihilation. She was already too late.