Even Eugène Ionesco, the master playwright of the absurd, would have trouble finding the words to describe the fate of Stephan Templ, a 53-year-old Austrian journalist and longtime critic of his country’s role in the confiscation of art and property from Viennese Jews during World War II.
In late February, Austria’s highest court upheld the judgment of a lower court that sentenced Templ to three years in prison for what can at best be described as failing to comply with a Kafkaesque bureaucratic request.
“The Republic of Austria made a mistake and this is my fault,” Templ wrote in an e-mail after the high court ruled. “They made a mistake and I have to go to jail.”
Understandably, Templ is incredulous and heartbroken. He is also out of legal options. Barring some sort of presidential pardon—which President Heinz Fischer has granted in the past to alleged perpetrators of nonviolent crimes—Templ will soon be jailed. That he should spend a single second incarcerated is unjust and morally offensive.
In brief, here is Templ’s story: In 2001, along with Tina Walzer, he wrote Unser Wien: “Arisierung” auf österreichisch (Our Vienna: “Aryanization” Austrian Style), which documented in a detailed and critical way the extent to which the Nazis and their Austrian collaborators appropriated properties in Vienna—apartment buildings, cinemas, pharmacies, even a Ferris wheel—from their Jewish owners.
One of the buildings the Nazis stole was a sanatorium near the Ringstrasse owned by Lothar Furth and his wife, Templ’s relatives. The Nazis “did not pay a penny for it,” Templ wrote me. After the Anschluss, in 1938, the Furths were made to clean the sidewalk in front of their building on their knees with toothbrushes. In utter despair, a month later they injected themselves with a lethal dose of poison. They had no children.
In 2005, Templ learned that the local Hoerner Bank—which was to receive a success fee—was searching for the Furths’ heirs in order to make a restitution claim on their behalf for the confiscated sanatorium. Templ filed a claim for his mother, Helene, a descendant of the Furths’ grandparents. By then, of course, Austria had made a big show of being a signatory to the 1998 State Department–sponsored Washington Principles, which encouraged European governments to pave the way for the return of art and property stolen during World War II.
In 2010, the sanatorium was returned to 39 heirs of Lothar Furth. Together they agreed to sell the building to developers, who are in the process of turning it into upscale condominiums. Templ’s mother, herself a Holocaust survivor, received €1.1 million for her share of the building.
Then things got bizarre. In 2011, a notary at the Hoerner Bank contacted Elisabeth Kretschmer, Templ’s aunt, whom he and his mother had not spoken to in some 30 years, and informed her that she had missed out on her share of the sale proceeds because, although she was a descendant of the Furths, she had not filed a claim. Kretschmer, now 84, then complained to Kurt Hankiewicz, a Viennese prosecutor, that she had been misled. Incredibly, the prosecutor indicted Templ on the charge that because he had not listed his estranged aunt as a potential heir of the Furths when he made the claim on behalf of his mother, he had somehow defrauded the Austrian Republic—because Kretschmer might have given up her inheritance to the state. Adding to the absurdity, Kretschmer later testified that she would never have given up her share of the proceeds of the sale of the sanatorium because she needed the money.
Nevertheless, the judge in Templ’s case, Sonja Weis, ruled that Templ had committed a crime. She said that Templ should have included his estranged aunt in his mother’s claim. To which Templ replied that his only obligation was to his mother and not to his aunt and that—incidentally—none of the other 39 descendants of the Furths had mentioned Kretschmer in their restitution claims either. None of them have been prosecuted. It was Weis’s decision that Templ appealed and has now lost.
The only logical explanation for Templ’s outrageous treatment at the hands of the Austrian justice system is that it is payback for his criticism of the state.
The sentence cannot be allowed to stand. Those who care about justice, fairness, and equity should be deeply offended by the pettiness and the cruelty of the Austrian court’s decision, and should immediately petition President Fischer for a reversal of it.
William D. Cohan’s latest book is The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite and the Corruption of Our Great Universities (Scribner).