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Austria

Overview

Austria’s Jewish population numbered about 192,000 when Nazi Germany annexed the country in March 1938.  Between 1938 and 1940, approximately 117,000 Jews fled Austria to countries across the world, including some that would later be occupied by Nazi Germany or were members of the Axis.  By November 1942, only about 7,000 Jews remained in the country.  Approximately 65,000 Austrian Jews were killed in the Holocaust.  Austria’s Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance has identified records pertaining to more than 63,800 Jewish victims.

In 1938, 99.7 percent of Austrians voted in a plebiscite to join the German Reich, but for decades following the war, the national consensus was that Austria, through an “unwanted Anschluss” (annexation), had been Hitler’s first victim.  The country later struggled to come to terms with an ambiguous and dark past.  The so-called “victim theory” was a fundamental myth of Austria’s post-war society, bolstered by language in the Allied Powers’ Joint Four-Nation Declaration from the Moscow Conference of October 1943, which included an explicit declaration on Austria and its annexation by Nazi Germany.  The wartime activities of Kurt Waldheim, who served as the president of Austria from 1986 to 1992, sparked a national debate on the country’s role in the Holocaust that started during the election campaign in 1985.

While Austria instituted several restitution programs in the immediate post-war era, they were widely acknowledged as insufficient to address the country’s wartime responsibility.  In 1991, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky gave a speech to the Austrian parliament in which he acknowledged the co-responsibility of Austrians for the suffering inflicted on the country’s Jewish community.  In July 1993, Vranitzky reiterated this admission in a speech before the Israeli Knesset.

Austria’s acknowledgement of its role in the Holocaust triggered a reassessment of the country’s post-war restitution programs.  An independent commission of historians found in February 2003 that “although the majority of the seized properties were restituted or the subject of settlements, the restitution proceedings of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s were considered unsatisfactory by many restitution claimants.  The range and complexity of the various restitution acts and deadlines, and the lack of state assistance for the victims of the seizures in their attempts to achieve restitution, were deciding factors in this regard.”

Beginning in 1995, the Austrian government set up several programs to address gaps and deficiencies in post-war restitution and compensation programs and made legislative changes that provided social welfare benefits to Austrian victims of the Nazis.  These included in 1995 a compensation fund called the National Fund for Victims of National Socialism and in 1998 an art restitution law.  Moreover, the October 2000 U.S.-Austrian Agreement on Compensation for Forced and Slave Laborers and the January 2001 U.S.-Austrian Washington Agreement on the Settlement of Questions Concerning Compensation and Restitution for Victims of National Socialism, negotiated by Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat and an interagency U.S. government team, obligated the Austrian government to set up restitution and/or compensation funds.  These agreements also obliged Austria to address the restoration and maintenance of Jewish cemeteries, provide easy access to archival documents, support and implement projects for Holocaust remembrance, and extend Austrian social benefits to Holocaust survivors living abroad.

When it was discovered that some six tons of Nazi-looted gold were still in the possession of the Tripartite Gold Commission established shortly after World War II, the U.S. government took the lead in encouraging countries to give their share of the looted gold to their Holocaust survivors.  Austria was the first state to adopt the recommendation; it also encouraged other countries to do so.

Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites

Holocaust education forms an important part of school curricula, and there are Holocaust remembrance projects throughout Austria.  The most prominent memorial site is the former concentration camp Mauthausen in Upper Austria.  The government funds Holocaust research projects on a regular basis, including via the “Future Fund.”  That mechanism disburses surplus funds from the compensation fund of Nazi-era forced and enslaved laborers to projects commemorating the victims of National Socialism and other totalitarian regimes.  Austria is also an active member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

The National Fund of Austria for the Victims of National Socialism continues to do educational programming.  For example, it recently funded a new Austrian exhibition in Block 17 of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland with the title “Far removed.  Austria in Auschwitz.”

The Welfare of Holocaust (Shoah) Survivors and Other Victims of Nazi Persecution

In accordance with the U.S.-Austria agreements concluded in 2000 and 2001, the Austrian government provided more than €180 million ($201.2 million) in nursing care payments to Holocaust survivors living abroad, most prominently in Israel and the United States.  The agreements also entitled Holocaust survivors living abroad to receive benefits under the Austrian pension system.  The National Fund for Victims of National Socialism, set up in 1995, provided lump-sum payments for Holocaust survivors and extra benefits for survivors in need of assistance.  The Reconciliation Fund for Compensation of Nazi-Era Forced and Slave Laborers, set up in 2000, issued payments to surviving forced and slave laborers.  An organization in Vienna also provides psychological assistance to Holocaust survivors.

The main entity representing former Austrian Jews in negotiations with Austria was the Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria, a sub-committee of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference).  It was founded in 1953 after Germany refused to accept the obligations of Austria, arguing that Austria was also responsible for Nazi persecution of Jews.  Following negotiations with the Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria, in 1956 Austria enacted the Assistance Fund Act (Hilfsfondsgesetz) that established a modest fund to provide one-time payments to victims of National Socialism who lived abroad and did not receive benefits under the Austrian Victims Welfare Act.

Starting in 1961, after negotiations with the Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria, the General Social Insurance Law was amended several times to allow more victims to participate in the pension system by retroactively purchasing pensions at a preferential rate.  In 2001, as a result of the U.S.-Austria Washington Agreement of that year, the law was amended yet again so that all persons born prior to the Anschluss in March 1938 would be able to “purchase” a social security pension.  In 2008, after pressure from the Claims Conference, this was changed again to include those born until the end of WWII.

Former Austrian Jews are entitled to monthly “nursing assistance” based on their level of disability.  Prior to the 2001 Washington Agreement, those former Austrian Jews living abroad were only entitled to “Level 2,” irrespective of their level of disability.  As a result of the 2001 Washington Agreement, this discriminatory measure was removed, and former Austrian Jews were entitled to receive up to Level 7 of this program.  Most of the former Austrian Jews benefiting from these agreements reside in Israel or the United States.

The National Fund for Victims of National Socialism provided lump-sum payments for Holocaust survivors and extra benefits for survivors in need of assistance.  Since its establishment, the National Fund has made around 30,000 “gesture payments” of €5,087 ($5,690) to surviving Austrian victims of National Socialist injustice.  The total amount of all payments comes to around €157.3 million ($175.8 million).

Furthermore, since 2001, the National Fund also disbursed more than €175 million ($195.6 million) as symbolic compensation for seized tenancy rights, household effects, and personal valuables.  These took the form of lump-sum payments of €7,630 or $7,000 and additional payments of 1,000 euros.  The claims deadline ended in June 2004.  Additionally, the National Fund has so far approved funding for around 2,100 projects and programs worth approximately €30.8 million ($34.4 million).

The country’s Reconciliation Fund for Compensation of Nazi-Era Forced and Slave Laborers, set up in 2000, issued payments to surviving forced and slave laborers who had not already received a payment from the German Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future.”  The overwhelming majority of victims of the Nazis who received a payment from the Reconciliation Fund were non-Jewish forced laborers.

For more than a decade, the Claims Conference has received an annual allocation of €1.5 million (approximately $1.7 million) from the Austrian government for an emergency assistance program to benefit former Austrian Jews, a program administered by Jewish social welfare agencies in countries in which former Austrian Jews reside.  Finally, an organization in Vienna called ESRA, the Hebrew term for “help,” provides psychological assistance to Holocaust survivors and their descendants.

U.S. Citizen Claims

The General Settlement Fund and the Reconciliation Fund for Nazi-Era Forced and Slave Laborers have now closed.  However, U.S. citizens can still apply for certain benefits from the National Fund for Victims of National Socialism, the art restitution program, and the Austrian government’s social welfare benefits (annual pensions and “Pflegegeld”- nursing allowances).  In addition, needy former Austrian Jews can still apply to Jewish social welfare agencies to access the Austrian Holocaust Survivor Emergency Assistance Program funded by the Austrian Government via the Claims Conference.

Belarus

Overview

The 1939 Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic national census registered 375,092 Jewish residents.  After the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939 and the annexation of Polish territory under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Jewish population rose to an estimated one million, including 404,500 in what is now eastern Belarus and more than 600,000 in present day western Belarus.  The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic government is reported to have evacuated approximately 220,000 Jewish residents, primarily from present day eastern Belarus, to other regions of the USSR in 1941 following the Nazi invasion earlier that year.

An estimated 600,000-800,000 Jews, including those deported from eastern Poland and other European countries, were killed in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic between July 1941 and October 1943 in more than 500 ghettos, concentration camps, and mass killing sites.  Jews deported to the country from Germany and other European countries were taken mainly to the Minsk ghetto and the Maly Trostinec death camp, where they were killed.  An estimated 15,000 former prisoners of the Nazis still live in Belarus, including war veterans and former ghetto, concentration camp, and death camp prisoners.

Today, an estimated 40,000 Jews live in Belarus, united in 43 registered Jewish secular communities under the Union of Belarusian Jewish Organizations and Communities.  The country’s registered Jewish religious communities include Chabad Lubavitch, Progressive Judaism, and Religious Jewish Congregations.

The government provides no compensation or assistance to Holocaust survivors.  Reflecting improving relations following a decade of reduced U.S. diplomatic presence, the government has conveyed receptiveness to an expanded dialogue on the issue in response to recent U.S. embassy engagement.

Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites

The government noted that educational institutions ranging from pre-schools to universities teach about the Holocaust and commemorate it.  For example, secondary schools cover the history of the Holocaust and genocide as part of their world history and Belarusian history curricula.

The government recognizes International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 and advises general secondary, vocational, and specialized secondary schools to visit monuments and memorials dedicated to the Holocaust on that day.  Meetings are also held in Zelva, Lida, Slonim, Novogrudok, Ivie, and other districts of the Hrodna region on that day in memory of Holocaust victims.  As part of these events, educational and cultural institutions organize book presentations, movie screenings, and classes about the Holocaust.

Museums and educational institutions around the country regularly organize conferences, events, movie screenings, and exhibitions dedicated to the Holocaust.  For instance, city authorities assist in organizing Hrodna’s annual “March of Memory” each spring, an event dedicated to the prisoners of the Hrodna ghetto, which was liquidated on March 12, 1943.  Local residents, representatives of the Jewish community, activists, and local officials march from the site of the former ghetto to the Chabad synagogue for a memorial prayer.  In May 2019, Belarus partnered with the Department of State in the latter’s annual Days of Remembrance (Yom HaShoah) commemoration in Washington, DC, to screen a film about the Minsk Ghetto.  The country’s deputy foreign minister spoke at the event.

Estonia

Overview

Approximately 4,500 Jews lived in Estonia before World War II, with roughly half living in Tallinn.  The pre-war community in Estonia enjoyed cultural autonomy and state financial support.  Following the Soviet occupation in June 1940, about half of Estonia’s Jews left the country, fleeing the Soviets.  In June 1941, Soviet authorities deported about 400 Jews to the interior of Russia.  When Nazi Germany occupied Estonia later that summer, some 1,000 Jews remained in Estonia.  They were arrested and killed by the Nazi German occupying powers, together with Estonian auxiliaries, over the course of 1941; by January 1942, the Nazis declared Estonia judenfrei, or free of Jews, at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin.

About 1,500 Jews from Tallinn returned to Estonia after World War II.  By 1959, there were 3,714 Jews in the city, including many from other parts of the Soviet Union.  Many Jews subsequently left Estonia in the 1990s, and the community now consists of between 2,000 and 2,500 people.  There are currently 11 Holocaust survivors living in the country; they receive pensions from the Estonian government but no special compensation as Holocaust survivors.

The Government of Estonia expressed its commitment to meeting the goals and objectives of the Terezin Declaration.  Estonia has no restitution legislation specific to the Holocaust.  The country’s Jewish community owned little property before World War II, and any resulting communal or private property claims have been generally resolved through existing legislation.  There are no residence or citizenship requirements for filing restitution claims.  U.S. citizen claimants may contact the Estonian embassy in Washington, DC, regarding any outstanding claims.  The government provides access to archives and supports Holocaust remembrance in the education system.

Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites

Estonia joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2007.  Since joining, awareness of Holocaust issues in the country has increased considerably.  Senior government leaders participate in International Holocaust Remembrance Day events and other significant commemorations, such as the September anniversary of the murders of approximately 2,000 prisoners at the Klooga concentration camp between 1943 and 1944.

The government supports Holocaust education.  Lessons on the Holocaust are an integral and mandatory part of the Estonian school curriculum, as directed by the Ministry of Education and Research.  Educators participate in regular educational exchanges on Holocaust issues in Israel and the United States.

Switzerland

Overview

During World War II (WWII), approximately 300,000 people crossed the border into Switzerland from Nazi-occupied countries.  Of the refugees, around 30,000 were Jews.  An estimated 24,500 mainly Jewish civilians, however, were turned away.  To review its wartime policies, the government set up an “Independent Commission of Experts on the Second World War,” which started its work in 1996 and produced a report that was welcomed by the government in 1999.  Switzerland continues to dedicate resources and implement programs toward the goals it endorsed in the Terezin Declaration, as well as promote Holocaust education and remembrance.

According to the Gamaraal Foundation, an organization established in 2014 that provides Holocaust education to the wider public and financial assistance to Holocaust survivors, there are approximately 450 Holocaust survivors among Switzerland’s 18,000 Jews.  The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) currently provides funding for social welfare benefits to 64 Holocaust survivors through the Swiss Welfare Jewish Organization.

Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites

Each year, the Federal Service for Combating Racism finances numerous projects for preventing religious prejudice and educating the public about the Holocaust.  For example, in 2018, the Federal Service for Combating Racism provided the Osses Theatre in the canton of Fribourg with a small grant to adapt “Anne Frank:  The Diary of a Young Girl” to a stage performance to raise public awareness of the history of the Holocaust and to enable reflection and debate on racism, religion, and discrimination.  Several school performances for adolescents took place, which were followed by discussions with directors and young professional actors.  Mediation activities accompanied the performances, including an exhibition called “Anne Frank – A Story of Today,” which was organized by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

Although not a requirement, many schools provide Holocaust education.  The government commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.

Switzerland is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and chaired the organization between March 2017 and March 2018.  In January 2018, at the federal government’s initiative, Lausanne’s University of Teacher Education introduced Holocaust study topics into its curriculum.

According to research cited in the 2015 International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Country Report on Switzerland, there are a total of 54 Holocaust remembrance sites in the country, which take the form of plaques, synagogue and cemetery monuments, public art works, parks, and street names.  In 2011, a Holocaust museum dedicated to Jewish refugees was founded in Riehen in the canton of Basel.  There are also plans under way to establish a Holocaust remembrance hiking trail in the canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden.

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