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The long wait for compensation for refugees from Nazi Austria
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in The Observer, 2005
The Second World War had been over for more than half a century before Peter Phillips, Evi Labi and the two thousand other Britons who had family property, insurance policies and bank accounts looted by the Nazis in Austria were promised any redress. A $210m compensation fund, created in 2001, seemed to offer at least token compensation for their losses. But a further five years on, the promised money remains elusive. Holocaust survivors who should be benefiting are ageing and, increasingly, dying. So far, not one claim has been paid out.
Peter Phillips talks of his “extreme frustration” at the delays. He was aged three and then called Peter Pfeffer when his parents had to leave Vienna hurriedly in 1939 after his father, a doctor, had been tipped off by a patient that he was marked down on a list for Dachau . Evi Labi also managed to escape with her parents, in her case within hours of the Nazi occupation of Austria in March 1938. Her father had been a prominent figure, working for the previous Austrian government, and their apartment in Vienna was occupied and ransacked almost immediately after the Nazis arrived in the city.
“My story is one of many,” says Evi Labi simply. Then aged fifteen, she recounts the terrible time when their apartment was first invaded (“They opened the front door, and said to passers-by ‘Come and help yourself to Persian rugs'”, she recalls). Within hours, she found herself a refugee, without even the money for a toothbrush.
Peter Phillips, Evi Labi and a small number of fellow Austrian refugees have now created the Austrian Restitution Group which is pressing the Austrian government for action. Having successfully built their lives in Britain, both say that it is the principle of compensation, rather than the money itself, which is important. But for some fellow refugees, clearly the money is a real need. Peter Phillips says that between thirty and forty people who have made claims to the compensation fund have approached the Group for help in recent months. “Some people are really hard up,” he says. “People ask me, ‘Herr Phillips, when will we get the money?' The answer is, I haven't the faintest idea.”
The Austrian compensation fund, known as the General Settlement Fund, has been controversial right from the start. It was created by the Austrian government after pressure from Jewish organisations, especially in the USA , and was part of a general process which also saw similar compensation schemes set up, for example, by German and Swiss banks and insurers. However, the total in the General Settlement Fund, $210m, has been criticised for being unrealistically low. There is no suggestion that families will receive anything like full compensation for their losses.
Peter Phillips says that the agreement was “bloody awful”, and was negotiated over the heads of Austrian refugees in Britain . This country has the third largest community of Austrian refugees, after Israel and the US, and approximately 2,100 of the total 19,700 claims made to the General Settlement Fund have come from Britain .
Initially, claims to the Fund were required by mid-2003, a deadline subsequently extended to January 2004. Not surprisingly given the situation in Austria in 1938 and 1939, claims have in many cases been complex: Evi Labi, for example, had to send in almost two thousand separate documents to back her case. However, Peter Phillips says that the Fund had insufficient staff in place and that the processing of claims has been unsatisfactorily slow.
Hannah Lessing, secretary general of the General Settlement Fund, admits that initially staff levels were too low for the detailed research necessary to assess claims. She says that, partly in response to criticisms, a hundred new staff have recently been taken on. “I have 170 employees now. We've speeded up considerably,” she maintains. She says that, by the end of this year, she expects 6,000 compensation claims to be ready for payment. However, she is reluctant to give a firm indication when the remaining two-thirds of the claims will be completed, adding just that she hopes that the work will be completed by 2007.
Unfortunately, however, even the 6,000 or so people whose claims have already been accepted may face a long wait for their money. Because the $210m available will be divided up on a pro rata basis, all claims will have to be completed before the pot of money can be fully shared out. There is also a second problem: some refugees in the US contested the original agreement through legal action, and one of these cases is still working its way slowly through the US court system. Until this case is dropped or resolved, the Austrian authorities say that their hands are tied. But as Peter Phillips points out, “no money has been transferred by the Austrian government into the Fund and interest is staying with the Austrian government”.
Hannah Lessing herself is clearly unhappy at the delay cause by the legal action, which may at last be close to being resolved. She says, if and when this happens, she will at least be able to make small ‘downpayments' to those people whose claims have been accepted. “I know many people don't live in richness, I know they need the money. It's very frustrating for myself and my staff that holocaust survivors are passing away before we can help them.”
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