Austrian-Jewish historian Stephan Templ is serving a one-year jail term for defrauding his country’s government in a restitution case, despite the discovery of new evidence that reportedly refutes the fraud allegations of which he was convicted.
Templ, 55, is the author of Unser Wien [Our Vienna], a book detailing all the real estate in the Austrian capital which was confiscated from Jews in the days and months leading to the Holocaust and never returned to its owners. He has been a vocal and prominent critic of Austria’s Holocaust-era conduct.
Templ is himself an indirect claimant to the Fuerth, a building owned by his ancestors and confiscated in 1938. He was convicted by Austria of misleading the authorities by withholding the existence of an estranged aunt when he applied, on behalf of his 80-year-old mother Helene, for the return of the building, and has been jailed for the offense since last October. An original three-year term was reduced to one year on appeal.
The aunt, Elisabeth Kretschamr, would have been eligible to receive a 12th share of ownership of the building, which would in turn have passed to the state had it known of her existence, the Austrian authorities charged in the case against him.
According to a report Saturday in the Guardian, papers found in the state-run offices set up to facilitate the return of properties to heirs and descendants show that authorities were, in fact, made aware by Templ of Kretschmar’s existence in 2003.
Documents filled in by Templ in his restitution claim were found in the offices of the General Settlement Fund (GSF) in Vienna by Templ’s legal team on 22 December, three years after they first began asking to view them, the Guardian reported.
Templ noted his aunt’s name and address on an application form a total of six times.
Despite this, representatives of the Austrian restitution organization testified during Templ’s trial that they did not know of the existence of Kretschmar. The judge ruled that Templ had deliberately withheld information about her, and accused him of “damaging the Republic of Austria.”
Templ told the Guardian: “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.”
Robert Amsterdam, Templ’s lawyer, told the Guardian: “After repeated denials and refusals, Mr Templ’s legal team was eventually granted access to documents which conclusively prove that the Austrian authorities knew about his aunt… It is outrageous for Austria to claim that Templ hid the existence of his aunt when her name is mentioned six times in documents submitted by him to the panel.”
“From the first look at this case, we thought it was political, and had nothing to do with the law or a sense of justice, but everything to do with singling out this Jewish troublemaker,” Amsterdam said. “This entire case is predicated on a legal fiction – the state has never been damaged and it’s an absolutely historic obscenity for Austria to claim this is the case.”
Historian Efraim Zuroff, renowned for his efforts at bringing Nazi war criminals to court, told the BBC last year that the jailing of Templ was “absolutely outrageous”. Zuroff was one of 75 Holocaust historians who decried his sentence. “The Austrian government’s decision to intervene by prosecuting and jailing Mr. Templ will be seen as an extreme overreaction to Mr. Templ’s important book,” they wrote in a letter sent to the Austrian ambassador in Washington, Hans Peter Manz.
The Fuerth building was sanatorium owned by Templ’s relatives, Lothar Fuerth and his wife, the BBC reported last year. “When Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany in March 1938, Lothar Fuerth was forced to clean the pavement in front of the hospital using toothbrushes as part of the mass persecution of Vienna’s Jews,” it said. “The couple later made their way back into the building and took their own lives.”
A spokesperson for the GSF denied that the organization knew about Templ’s aunt. Austria’s justice ministry declined to respond to repeated requests for comment by the UK paper.