Stephan Templ, a longtime critic of Austria’s role in the confiscation of art and real estate from Viennese Jews during World War II, faces a three-year prison sentence in his native country under circumstances that can only be described as Kafkaesque.
Templ, 53, a journalist and architect, is the coauthor, with Tina Walzer, of the 2001 book Unser Wien: “Arisierung” auf österreichisch (Our Vienna: “Aryanization” Austrian Style), which documented 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. “In the pillaging of their Jewish neighbors, the Viennese played a leading role for the entire Thousand Year Reich,” the authors wrote.
The book was virtually ignored in Vienna, Templ said, until the New York Times wrote an extensive article about it in March 2002. The paper called the book “acerbic” and noted that it was distinguished from previous accounts of Aryanization by the incredible level of detail that Templ and Walzer had uncovered about confiscated businesses and buildings and their former owners. “The book provides a bizarre walking guide to one of Europe’s great cities,” Steven Erlanger wrote in the Times. Since the publication of the book, Templ has also written articles for a German newspaper critical of Austria’s restitution process.
One of the buildings stolen from its Jewish owners was a sanatorium near the Ringstrasse owned by Templ’s relatives, Lothar Furth and his wife. After the Anschluss, in March 1938, Furth was forced by the sanatorium’s concierge to get down on his knees and clean the sidewalk in front of the building with a toothbrush. One night a month later, the Furths made their way back into the sanatorium and injected themselves with poison. They had no children.
After the war, restitution efforts throughout Europe were imperfect at best, but in the wake of the 1998 State Department–sponsored Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets and the publication of the Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art developed by the conference, which encouraged governments to return stolen property to its rightful owners, some small steps forward were made.
In 2005, Templ learned that efforts were underway in Vienna—underwritten by the local Hoerner Bank, which takes a percentage of the proceeds as a fee—to locate the Furths’ heirs in order to return the ownership of the sanatorium to them.
Templ filed a claim on behalf of his mother, Helene, a descendant of the Furths’ grandparents. 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 the property into upscale condominiums. Templ’s mother, herself a Holocaust survivor, received €1.1 million (about $1.5 million) for her share of the building. Templ filed his mother’s claim himself, without using an attorney. He says that he may have offended some local lawyers who were representing other heirs by depriving them of a fee.
That’s when things took a turn toward the absurd. 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, Hankiewicz 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 of the situation, according to Templ, Kretschmer told the Austrian court that she would never have renounced her share of the proceeds—had she known about the restitution and filed a claim in time—but would have kept the much-needed funds for herself.
But judge Sonja Weis asserted that Templ, nevertheless, should have included his aunt on his mother’s claim. Templ countered that his only obligation was to list his mother’s claim and noted that none of the other 38 beneficiaries of the restitution had listed his aunt as an heir either. None of them have been prosecuted.
“That is completely absurd,” Templ said in a recent interview. His aunt “was asked, in the courtroom, if she would’ve left it to the Republic of Austria. She said, ‘Never. I immediately would have filed a claim if I would have wanted it.’ I mean, that’s completely absurd, the whole thing.”
Eva Blimlinger, who led the Austrian Historical Commission’s search for Aryanized property, said, “Nobody can understand it, but when you isolate the case, it’s clear that the whole thing is stupid. Nowhere is it written that it is obligatory to list other heirs. So that’s the part that is the duty of the General Settlement Fund to look up and see if there are other heirs. It’s not the duty of Stephan Templ or his mother.”
In July, Templ appealed his sentence to Austria’s supreme court. Its ruling could come any day, or in months or years. He seems confident that he will not be jailed, but he can’t be completely certain because —and he remains dumbfounded by this —he was sentenced in the first place.
“I’ve been assured that I won’t go to jail,” he said. “I didn’t do any legal mistake. I’m not obliged to name any other heirs. Look, there were 39 heirs of that former sanatorium which belonged to my ancestors, and none of these heirs were giving names of any other heirs either . . . so I didn’t make any legal mistakes.”
Templ has spent eight months of his life on the case and $20,000 on legal fees that he won’t be able to recover, fighting a charge he is unable to understand.
“It doesn’t take away my energy,” he said. “It only costs me money.”
William D. Cohan’s most recent book, The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite and the Corruption of Our Great Universities, will be published by Scribner in April.