The Jewish author of an acclaimed book revealing how Nazi Vienna stole from its Jews faces jail in Austria for alleged fraud over a restitution claim on property the Nazis stole from his own grandmother.
Stephan Templ’s 2001 work, Our Vienna: Aryanisation the Austrian Way, broke new ground by documenting the extent to which the Austrians were among the first Nazi profiteers to expropriate property from Vienna’s large Jewish population after Hitler annexed the country in 1938.
“The Austrians looted Jewish property, before the government had even set the rules. They did in six months what the Germans didn’t do in six years,” he said. In Austria the book caused an uproar because it broke a post-war taboo and named those who stole property.
One of the victims of the Vienna Nazis’ property-stealing rampage was Mr Templ’s grandmother. She was the part-owner of a large private sanatorium for wealthy Jews. After Hitler’s arrival, the Nazis confiscated the building.
After the war, Austria was slow in returning the sanatorium to its rightful owners . It was only after the signing of an agreement between Austria and the US in 2000 that the Alpine state conceded that it had a moral responsibility to hand back property stolen by the Nazis. Mr Templ’s mother, Helene, who is an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor, then became the rightful heir to a family share in the sanatorium.
Mr Templ applied for restitution on his mother’s behalf in 2005. He was successful and his mother later managed to sell her share of the building for £870,000. Mr Templ thought the matter had been concluded. But then in January 2013 he was shocked to discover that he had been indicted by prosecutors on charges of defrauding the Austrian Republic.
In April last year, Vienna’s criminal court upheld the charges against him and sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment. The judge ruled he had tried to “unlawfully enrich himself”, that he was “greedy” and that he wanted “the highest amount of money for himself” regarding his mother’s restitution case.
“I felt I was being punished for the things I wrote about in my book which upset the authorities,” Mr Templ told The Independent by phone from his home in Prague last week. “They thought they had found their ideal victim because I was comparatively small Jewish fry – not a leading figure,” he added.
Mr Templ’s alleged crime was based on a ruling by the Austrian courts whose validity is being examined by the European Court of Human Rights. Judges declared that he had tried to enrich himself by deliberately omitting to name his estranged aunt, who also owned a sanatorium share, in his mother’s restitution claim.
They argued that as a result his mother’s share was double what it should have been as it included what could have been the aunt’s stake in the building. However they concluded that it was not the aunt who was the victim but the Austrian state which was technically the owner of the property at the time of its restitution. The judges ruled that Mr Templ had therefore tried to defraud the state.
Mr Templ, who has been estranged from his aunt for more than 30 years, said not mentioning her name was an oversight and that no other claimants mentioned other potential heirs in their applications. He says he was the only claimant charged with fraud. “It was revenge against restitution in general, an attempt to deter others,” he said.
The lawyers representing Mr Templ, Amsterdam and Partners, will this week appeal to the Austrian Procurator General to get the case reopened. “This is a case that cries our for justice,” Robert Amsterdam told The Independent. “For an Austrian court to convict a Jewish citizen under these circumstances echoes a very dark period of history,” he added.
Mr Templ’s lawyers are convinced that the logic behind his conviction is flawed. They argue the Austrian state cannot claim a property which was acknowledged to have been stolen and has since been returned to the heirs of the rightful owners. They maintain the state cannot therefore claim to be the injured party.Reuse content