Austrian Jewish Historian Remains in Prison Despite Evidence Purportedly Exonerating Him

Stephan Templ was sentenced to a year in jail for concealing the existence of an aunt from the government in connection with his family's Holocaust restitution claim, but new evidence suggests the aunt's existence was known.

Stephan Templ
Bloomberg

New evidence surfaced in December that purportedly undermines the conviction and year-long imprisonment of a Jewish historian by the Austrian government, but the prisoner, 55-year-old Stephan Templ, remains in jail, the Guardian newspaper reported over the weekend on its website.

Templ, who is known for his criticism of Austria and the way it handles its Nazi past, began serving his sentence in Vienna's Simmering prison in October after a controversial trial in which he was found guilty of “defrauding the state.” Just before beginning his jail term, Templ told Haaretz his “Kafkaesque” case was “completely absurd” and bordered on anti-Semitic persecution.

Templ's fraud conviction was based on the allegation that he hid the existence of an estranged aunt when he filed a restitution claim on behalf of his mother seeking the return of a Vienna building that had been taken from his family in 1938. But the Guardian is now reporting that evidence from 2003 demonstrates that the Austrian government agency that handled the restitution claim had notice of the existence of the aunt at the time, thereby purportedly undermining the basis on which Templ was sent to jail. An official with the agency that handled the restitution case said the evidence does not support the claim that the agency knew of the aunt's existence. 

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, 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 share of the asset. The document showing that the restitution agency, the GSF or General Settlement Fund, had purportedly known of the existence of the aunt surfaced on December 22 of last year, the Guardian reported. 

But Stefanie Lucas of the GSF told the Guardian in an email: “It is not true that the GSF has known about the existence of Stephan Templ’s aunt since 2003."  Data protection laws barred her from providing additional details, she added. The Austrian Justice Ministry reportedly declined repeated requests by the Guardian for a response. 

For his part, Templ told the Guardian by phone from Vienna: “The indictment is in tatters, so I don’t understand why they don’t release me. Apart from the fact they should never have put the victim of the [property] theft behind bars in the first place, it’s now six weeks since this new evidence came to light and the authorities do nothing. It’s further proof of what a farce the whole case is, as I’ve said all along.”