Vienna's Topography of Robbery'

A unique guidebook lists properties seized from Viennese Jews during the Nazi era.

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

Vienna, capital of Austria and one of the biggest tourist attractions in Europe, was recently the subject of an unusual "guide book." In "Unser Wien" (Our Vienna,) Jewish husband-and-wife team Stephan Templ and Tina Walzer (he is a cultural correspondent for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, she a historian) write that a great many of the sites in which the Viennese take such pride were in fact seized from their Jewish owners during the Nazi era. To this day, they have not been restored to their owners or their heirs.

What makes the book unique is that its authors are not content with merely describing the mechanisms through which the Jewish-owned assets were seized. They devote the book's final 100 pages to a section entitled "The Topography of Robbery," in which they provide detailed maps that survey the city's neighborhoods one by one, noting approximately 500 sites that were owned by Jews before the war. Included on the list are Cafe Mozart; the Majolica House, an architectural gem; a prestigious clothing store and the Bristol and Imperial Hotels. In addition, the book furnishes a detailed list of 70,000 private apartments and homes seized from Jewish families; in many instances, these properties were "inherited" by (and are still in the possession of) ranking members of the Viennese elite.

The book provides the names of these high-ranking "heirs," or as Templ describes them - "the people who continue to sleep in the beds of the murder victims." This list includes individuals such as former Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, whose wife's family "inherited" a Jewish-owned orthopedic business; he himself continues to live in a house that had belonged to the owners of the business.

Templ relates that the idea for his unique research project came to him when he was still a child. "My mother came from a Jewish family that lived in a beautiful villa in Prague, which was seized during the Nazi period. After the war, she moved to Vienna, where we lived in an apartment. She would show me the villas around where we lived, and tell me that all of them were stolen from Jews during the war." Templ says he carried out an independent inquiry on the subject in 1988, on the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss - the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany. However, he asserts that at the time, the Austrian media had little interest in publicizing his findings.

"Despite all the interest in the Anschluss that year, they didn't think that this was an important enough or interesting enough perspective." More recently, when he sought a publisher for his book, Templ did not bother to look for an Austrian publisher, preferring to apply directly to publishers in Germany.

Templ is proud to announce that his book breaks Austrian privacy laws as well as his own explicit assurances. "According to Austrian law, it is forbidden to publish names of the owners who `inherited' the seized assets. In order to elicit the cooperation of the archives, I had to sign a commitment not to publish these details, and that I would use them strictly for research purposes. I never had any intention of honoring this commitment."

`Frozen trumpet blast'

Templ calculates that no lawsuits will be brought against him, since, as he says, "the authorities know this would give huge publicity to the book, and they have no reason to help publicize it." Just to be on the safe side, he took advantage of the fact that as part of his job as cultural affairs reporter for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Eastern Europe, his official address is in Prague.

"I made sure that Tina would sign her name only to the theoretical parts of the book, whereas only I have signed my name to the section that describes the sites and the names of the `heirs of the properties.' I am considered a Czech resident, meaning that anyone who wants to sue me will have to do so in the Czech Republic, through the Czech judicial system, which will make things harder for him."

He also promises a sequel that will deal with the assets seized from Jews throughout the rest of Austria, including the estate of Jorg Haider, the former leader of the far-right Freedom Party. The estate was bought for a pittance after it was seized from Jews. So that he will not have to once again break the law to publish the next book, Templ made sure to gather all the required information at the same time as he was working on the first book. Now he only has to sit and write it.

In order to enhance the practical utility of the book, Templ and Walzer provided an appendix that features the addresses and telephone numbers of the various archives in which information can be found on the seized assets. Templ was pleased to note that to the best of his knowledge, the archives - especially the State Archive - have been inundated with requests in the wake of the book's publication. "The State Archive," says Templ, "even hired a person whose sole duty is to process these requests."

All of this has, of course, made Stephan Templ the darling of the Austrian establishment. Austria's ambassador to the United States, Peter Moser, reviewed the book and called it a "frozen trumpet blast, disconnected from times that passed long ago." On the other hand, Hans Peter Manz, a diplomatic advisor to Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, welcomed its publication.

The Austrian media initially greeted the book with cool indifference. "When it appeared, six months ago, only one article about it was published," says Templ. He asserts that only after the foreign press gave it wide coverage - the book was featured in Le Monde, Liberation and especially The New York Times, which printed an extensive article about the book on page three of the newspaper - did the Austrian press deign to discuss it, but even then with a lack of interest. He says the Austrian public exhibited slightly more interest. "In the two months following its publication, the book sold about 5,000 copies, and to date, about 8,000 copies have been sold. In Austrian terms, that isn't bad, and evidently at least the younger generation is interested in these materials," says Templ.

The Jewish community was pleased, of course, to see the book published. Nevertheless, Erika Jakobowitz, the general manager of the office of Austrian Jewish community president Ariel Muzicant, doubts it will have any practical significance. "I think it will be difficult to restore these assets to their owners, since all of the relevant files would have to be presented. The owners would have to prove that there were no previous arrangements relating to the assets, and that if there were, they were extremely unjust. The principle involved here is highly important, but between that and winning a lawsuit there is a great distance."



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