A Jewish writer known for his criticism of Austria and the way it handles its Nazi past began a year-long prison sentence in Vienna yesterday, after a controversial trial in which he was found guilty of “defrauding the state.” Just before beginning his jail term, Stephan Templ, 54, told Haaretz that his “Kafkaesque” case was “completely absurd” and bordered on anti-Semitic persecution.
Austria-born Templ’s run-in with the authorities began in 2005. At the time, he was helping his mother, Helena — an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor — file a claim for the restitution of property that had been stolen from her family in 1938 (when Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany and Jewish property was expropriated by the Nazis).
The asset is a 19th-century villa located in central Vienna, which served as a sanitarium and maternity hospital in its day. Its last owner was Dr. Lothar Fürth, a cousin of Templ’s grandmother. In March 1938, the building caretaker forced Fürth and his wife to scrub the entrance to the building with a toothbrush. The humiliated couple went to an operating room and committed suicide by injecting themselves with poison.
Templ’s mother, who received 1.1 million Euros in compensation, was one of 40 heirs to receive compensation for their part-ownership of the building, which was sold in 2010.
In 2011, after the compensation had been distributed to the heirs, Templ’s aunt, Elisabeth Kretschmar (his mother’s estranged sister), found out she had missed the deadline for submitting the claim and had potentially lost her part in the asset.
The Austrian authorities said Templ had not told his aunt that a claim had been filed and that, by failing to do so, he had theoretically prevented the state from receiving its part in the asset — in the event that the aunt would willingly renounce her claim. The authorities ignored the aunt’s court statement that she would not willingly do this.
The Austrian court determined that Templ had not reported the possible claim to his aunt and, therefore, had increased his mother’s share of the asset. Templ, meanwhile, said it had not been his responsibility to report to his aunt, but only to prove that his mother was a legitimate heir to the asset. Expert witnesses did not support Templ’s arguments.
In 2013, Templ was convicted of defrauding the state and sentenced to three years in prison, which was reduced to one year on appeal as he was a first-time offender. Templ’s friends compared his trial to the Dreyfus affair, while Templ said he felt like he was in “Putin’s Russia, not Vienna.”
Templ explored every avenue to reduce his sentence and reopen his trial, but to no avail.
At a meeting with Haaretz a few months ago in Prague, where he lives, Templ said he was a victim of cynical political persecution by the Austrian authorities, among other reasons because he had harshly criticized them in his writings.
In 2001, Templ — who is also an architectural historian and curator — coauthored the book “Unser Wien” (“Our Vienna”), documenting hundreds of buildings in Austria that were expropriated from Jews after the Anschluss and never returned to their owners or heirs. Following publication of the book, the state had to deal with a wave of claims from around the world for the restitution of property.
Templ showed Haaretz a number of documents that demonstrated unprofessional and surprising conduct by the authorities who sentenced him.
Prior to beginning his sentence, Templ called the trial completely absurd, noting, “I filed a restitution claim in the name of my mother for the asset that was owned by my family until 1938. Austria owned the property until 2010 because of the Nazi theft. Austria rented my family’s property for 60 years and profited from it, and now the Austrian court decides I am the one who caused damage to Austria.”
A few months ago, the Anti-Defamation League appealed to the Austrian president and justice minister to pardon Templ, but its attempts were unsuccessful.
Templ’s attorney, Robert Amsterdam, compared the case to one in which a robber sues the owner of the house he has broken into because he left his tools in their home.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now