A Jewish historian and outspoken critic of Austria’s approach to returning property looted by the Nazis is being kept in jail for defrauding the state over a restitution claim, despite the discovery of crucial new evidence.
Stephan Templ, 55, was convicted of serious fraud for hiding the existence of an estranged aunt when he applied on behalf of his mother for the return of a building in Vienna which was seized from his family in 1938.
But papers found in the state-run offices set up to facilitate the return of properties to heirs and descendants show that authorities were made aware of the existence of Elisabeth Kretschmar in 2003.
Representatives of the organisation had testified during Templ’s trial that they had no knowledge of his aunt. The judge said Templ had deliberately withheld the information about her, and in so doing had “damaged the Republic of Austria” because the aunt’s potential one-twelfth share of the building had gone to Templ’s mother, rather than to the state.
At the trial there was no discussion about why the onus was on families dispossessed of their property by the Nazis to prove their right to reclaim it by detailing their own genealogy.
Templ was sentenced to three years in prison, which was reduced on appeal to one year. He has been held in Vienna’s Simmering jail since 15 October.
Leading Holocaust historians condemned his conviction in a strongly worded letter to the Austrian government.
The documents were discovered in the offices of the General Settlement Fund (GSF) in central Vienna by Templ’s legal team on 22 December, three years after they first began asking to view them.
In the papers seen by the Guardian, Templ noted his aunt’s name and address on an application form a total of six times. The GSF is believed to have eventually processed the documentation in 2006.
“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,” said Robert Amsterdam, an international lawyer with Amsterdam and Partners, which is representing Templ on a pro bono basis.
“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.”
Amsterdam has filed a petition against Austria on behalf of Templ with the United Nations human rights council. He is convinced Templ’s treatment – including the state’s refusal to release him and launch an investigation in light of the “new and crucial evidence” – is direct retribution for his efforts to expose what he describes as the state’s woefully inadequate attempts to compensate the Jewish owners of stolen properties.
His 2001 book Unser Wien (Our Vienna) sparked an international furore. It catalogued hundreds of prominent properties seized by the Nazis that were never returned, including major Viennese landmarks – from the city’s famous ferris wheel to luxury hotels and tailors, as well as the building at the centre of his own claim, the Fürth sanatorium.
The 19th-century villa was a private birth clinic belonging to Lothar Fürth, a cousin of Templ’s grandmother. A month before its expropriation on 3 April 1938, Fürth, the head of the clinic, and his wife, Sue, were forced by a caretaker to clean the pavement in front of the building using toothbrushes as an act of humiliation. The couple then retreated to the operating room at the top of the hospital and injected themselves with poison.
In a suicide note, Fürth wrote: “We have had enough.”
Amsterdam said: “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.
“This case is as good as it gets if you’re trying to prove the retribution of the Austrian system. 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.”
Stefanie Lucas of the GSF said in an email: “It is not true that the GSF has known about the existence of Stephan Templ’s aunt since 2003.”
She said that whenever it examined an application for in rem (a lawsuit against an item of property) restitution, the arbitration panel consulted all documents in the possession of the GSF and listed them under “evidence” in its decision. “It goes without saying that this procedure was also followed for the application of Stephan Templ’s mother.”
She said “strict data protection laws [to protect our applicants]” prevented her from giving more detail.
Austria’s justice ministry declined to respond to repeated requests for comment.
Templ said 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.”