'We Want Our Archives Back'

After the Holocaust, the decimated Jewish community of Austria asked the Jewish people's central archive in Jerusalem to take possession of historical documents. Now strong and prosperous, it's suing for their return.

It is not easy to find the Jewish people's archives, at the easternmost edge of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Givat Ram campus. Only one bus stops nearby. Anyone hoping to reach the place by car will be stopped at the security barrier at the other end of the campus.

Across a large parking lot, down a hill, next to the outer fence of the university, in an enclosure that goes by the misleading name High-Tech Village, are two, old one-story buildings that were once student dorms. Here are the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Michal Fattal

The archives have existed in various incarnations since 1938. Proprietorship is divided between the government, the Jewish Agency, three universities (Hebrew University, Tel Aviv, and Bar-Ilan ) and several other bodies. The extensive data here document the lives of Jews in the Diaspora from the 12th century to today. They include 60 million documents, 11 million microfilm frames, 15,000 photographs, and 14,000 books and publications. The jewel in the crown is the 1,600 archives of communities, organizations and families that are housed here.

Two weeks ago, in an unprecedented move, the Jewish community of Austria filed a lawsuit in the Jerusalem District Court in a bid to compel the archives to return thousands of documents, dating from the 1600s to 1945, that deal with the lives of Austria's Jews during that period, which includes, of course, the German occupation.

The archives' director, Hadassah Assouline, has been working there for 45 years. "This is the first and only time that something like this has happened to us," she said last week. "There is no justification for this material returning to Vienna."

After the Holocaust, leaders of the Vienna community decided to transfer its archives to Jerusalem. Austria at that time was not, in their opinion, a suitable place for preserving such information, in part because local survivors were preoccupied with more existential matters. From then until the end of the 1970s, more and more documentation from Vienna was transferred to Jerusalem.

Today, Austria's Jewish community numbers 20,000 people and is thriving.

"We are one of the most organized and active communities in Europe today," said Ariel Muzicant, the head of the community, in a telephone conversation from Vienna. "We built schools and social institutions, we restored the cemetery, and now we want our archives back."

In recent years the community has been busy planning a unique commemorative and educational project, with the participation of institutions such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the modern history institute at the University of Vienna, and the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance. At the heart of the project, which is scheduled for completion in another five years, are a museum and large research center that will be built on the site where the Gestapo headquarters stood during the Nazi era. Its 50 million-euro cost is being financed by the Austrian government and the city of Vienna.

Members of the Jewish community who looked into the matter found that the archive is dispersed among several locations in Austria, Russia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Israel.

"We contacted all of these countries. They all cooperated. All except two, which insist on holding onto the material and refuse to give it back to us," Muzicant said. The two countries are Israel and Poland.

"We wanted to do it the Jewish way, out of court," he added. "It's very hard for us, as a Jewish community and being very pro-Israel, to fight with the State of Israel, but if there is no choice we will do it the hard way. It's a disgrace, but we won't give in. We want the material back. It is our property and we alone will decide what happens to it."

At the center of the legal debate is the question of whether the documents were loaned to Israel or given to it in safekeeping for posterity. The local attorney representing the Austrian community, Gilad Maoz, of the law firm Epstein Rosenblum Maoz, of Tel Aviv, attached to the claim correspondence between Vienna and Jerusalem that he contends shows the documents were transferred to Israel temporarily.

"In making the arrangements between the parties, it was clarified repeatedly that the documents were being handed over merely on loan and that ownership of them remained - and always shall remain - in the hands of the Jewish community in Vienna," he noted.

Assouline, director of the archives in Jerusalem, disagrees: "The Jews of Vienna decided to deposit the archive in Jerusalem not in order to ask for it back. They continued to send us material for decades," she pointed out. The Vienna archive also contains information about Jews from other places in the world, including Jerusalem and even Siberia. For this reason, Assouline added, it naturally belongs in Israel, alongside the archives of the other communities. "In many cases, we learn from the material of particular communities about others, and can reconstruct the history of another community. Because Jews fled to everywhere in the world, the material ought to be concentrated in one place," she said.

"For years we invested our professional knowledge and money in sorting the files, cataloging them, preserving the material and properly storing the collection. During that period various documents and files came to the archives from various sources outside of Vienna, and these were added to the collection," Assouline added.

The holdings were made accessible to researchers and the general public, including immigrants from Austria and their descendants. In addition, Austrian students and scholars have made use of the archives' services, she noted: "In any event, most of Vienna's archive has already been copied, and the copies were sent to the Jewish community there." But Muzicant is not satisfied: "We want the original materials. There is a difference between an original and a copy. The Austrian government did not give us 50 million euros for copies," he stressed.

Still in crates

Despite budgetary constraints, Assouline and her staff managed to maintain the information in relatively good shape and under suitable conditions. However, most of it is still in crates and folders, and has yet to be scanned. "More can be done with this material than is being done in Israel today. It is a matter of budget and ability. Austria has both," Maoz said.

Muzicant, for his part, has pledged to scan the material in its entirety if it is returned to Vienna, and to make digital copies available to the archives in Jerusalem, along with additional materials about the community that were never transferred abroad. "I would prefer to avoid an ugly legal campaign and a foolish battle, and to reach a compromise in this spirit," he added.

In 2002, files and documents from the Nazi era were discovered in one of the Jewish community's buildings in Vienna. The community promised to provide a list of these files to the archives in Jerusalem. However, according to Assouline, "that list has not arrived, even today. Despite frequent requests, the community has not authorized us to receive copies. This has prevented a large public of scholars and former Viennese in Israel from perusing this material."

Furthermore, she is worried that if the Viennese material in the Jerusalem archives is returned, it will become less accessible. Her concern is based on a letter written a year and a half ago by several prominent scholars, in which they claimed that the Jewish community in Vienna restricts the use of its archival materials, and violates the independence of their research. Heading the list of signatories to the letter were Prof. Yehuda Bauer of Hebrew University and Prof. David Bankier of Yad Vashem, who has since died.

Muzicant explained that the letter in question was related to a dispute between two groups of scholars. "As in all Jewish institutions, there was a dispute here, too. For as long as Jews have been alive there have been personal arguments between them, unfortunately. This cannot be changed," he said.

Beyond the dry legal arguments pertaining to rental law, contracts and borrowing, there are also historical, cultural and moral sides to this story, which belong outside a courtroom.

"There are hundreds of thousands of Viennese Jews and their descendants living in Israel, such as myself for example," Assouline said. "This material belongs to us just as much as it belongs to the community in Austria. In general, I'm not sure there is anyone left from the original community in Vienna. My grandfather is buried in Austria whereas the head of the community himself, Muzicant, was born in Haifa."

On the eve of Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria, in 1938, the Jewish community there numbered around 200,000, the vast majority of its members in Vienna. Most had not been Austrian for generations, but rather moved there beginning in the late 19th century. Between then and 1941, two-thirds of the community fled Vienna. Almost all of the others, some 70,000 Jews, were murdered in the Holocaust. The present community is largely made up of Jews who moved there from Eastern Europe from the 1950s on.

Muzicant retorted: "They left the community, under terrible circumstances certainly, but they still left. They do not have a moral, judicial or legal right to its archive," he said with regard to former Viennese living in Israel. "They do not have a central organization in Israel, and in practical terms they are dead. Their average age is 95, so go ahead and try asking for their opinion on the matter.

"We are the ones who came back and rebuilt the community. Today there are more Austrian Jews here than anywhere else in the world. So who is more Austrian: a 95-year-old Jew who was born in Vienna but lives in Israel, or a younger Jew who lives and resides in Austria here and now?" Muzicant asked.

Israel does in fact have a central organization representing the Jews from Austria. The organization's chairman, Vienna-born Gideon Eckhaus, 88, said: "Muzicant is well aware of our existence, so let him stop talking nonsense. We have clubs in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and we also hold meetings in Haifa. There are 2,500 people, all of them Holocaust survivors, who come to our events. What can you do, we used to be twice as many, but unfortunately people pass on."

Eckhaus also thinks that the Viennese archive should remain in Jerusalem. "I don't get this thing and I can't understand the aspirations certain people have. It's not like someone came from Israel and took these documents away from them. They themselves brought them to Jerusalem. As far as I'm concerned, it's very clear: Jews need to know that if they brought something to Jerusalem, it stays in Jerusalem. The global Jewish center is in Jerusalem, not Vienna. Pure and simple."

But the Austrian community's lawyer, Maoz, suggested that "there's a gap here between the paternalistic viewpoint of Israel, which thinks that everything belongs to it - as a country that represents all Jews wherever they may be - and the Austrian community, which resides and lives there right now and wants to present their past to their children and neighbors. They believe that precisely in this place, the symbol of the murder of tens of thousands, it is important to erect a signpost directed at all the peoples of Europe, on which will be written, 'We are here, we were here, and we stayed here.'"