Vienna Jews: Holocaust archive used to resolve legal claims

Community argues that cache found in 2000 could have helped victims receive compensation if discovered earlier.

holocaust archive 298  (photo credit: AP)
holocaust archive 298
(photo credit: AP)
The Jewish Community Vienna said Monday it has routinely used documents found in the Austrian capital to substantiate restitution and compensation claims by Holocaust victims and people whose families had property seized by the Nazis. In 2000, members of the group were preparing to turn a building over to new owners when they stumbled across some 800 boxes and dozens of wooden cabinets filled with about half a million documents detailing the lives of Jews during Nazi times. Part of the cache - which includes World War II-era deportation lists, emigration documents, letters and photos - will be included in an exhibition that opens in the Austrian capital next month. "From the moment we found the material and had it moved to our office, we widely used all available information to substantiate both individual claims and claims regarding properties of disbanded Jewish organizations," said Ingo Zechner, who heads the community's Holocaust Victims' Information and Support Center. "The main task of our office is to support restitution and compensation claims, so of course we used the information in the documents for this purpose," he said. On Thursday, the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA issued a statement demanding to know why the materials apparently were not brought to the attention of groups trying to win compensation for Holocaust victims and their relatives. "We do not understand how this valuable and pertinent documentation on Austrian Jewry was ignored," the Miami-based US foundation said, adding that the find might have changed the outcome of settlements with insurance companies reached earlier this year. Zechner said the complaints were based on misunderstandings. He said the archival holdings of the Jewish Community Vienna, which also includes documents currently stored at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, do not contain any information on insurance policies of Jewish victims. Rather, Zechner said, the documents contain information on other assets such as apartment leases, profession bans, interruption of education and personal valuables. Zechner, stressing that supporting Holocaust survivors and the families of Nazi persecution is the main task of the Holocaust Victims' Information and Support Center, said staff members routinely check card indexes and files - both included in the 2000 find - to support claimants. In addition, Zechner said the center has provided access to the documents for the Austrian Historical Commission investigating the expropriation of Jews by the Nazis, the Austrian Commission for Provenance Research that deals with the restitution of artworks from publicly owned museums and collections, and to the Austrian National Fund and the Austrian General Settlement Fund in charge of compensating property damages of people who persecuted. "Restitution has been a major issue from the beginning regarding these archival materials," he said. Since 2002, Vienna's Jewish community and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington have been working together to preserve the material on microfilm for a wider collection that will include about 1.5 million Holocaust-era documents from Vienna currently stored in Jerusalem.