Jewish historian in Austrian jail despite evidence

In a bizarre and troubling case, Stephan Templ was jailed over a claim to property looted during the Holocaust. Will new findings free him?

Gil Ronen ,

Stephan Templ
Stephan Templ

Jewish historian Stephan Templ is being held in an Austrian jail for allegedly "defrauding the state" over a restitution claim, although crucial new evidence has been discovered.

Templ, 55, was convicted of serious fraud for allegedly hiding the existence of an estranged aunt named Elisabeth Kretschmar when he applied on behalf of his mother for the return of a building in Vienna which was seized from his family in 1938.

However, papers found by Templ's legal team in the offices of the General Settlement Fund (GSF), the official body in charge of returning stolen properties to heirs and descendants, show that Templ informed the authorities about Kretschmar back in 2003.

The judge in Templ's trial determined that he had deliberately withheld the information about Kretschmar and had “damaged the Republic of Austria,” because the aunt’s one-twelfth share of the building had gone to Templ’s mother, rather than to the state.

Templ was sentenced to three years in jail – a sentence reduced to one year after he filed an appeal. He has been held in Vienna’s Simmering jail since October 15.

The documents were discovered on December 22, three years after Templ's legal team first began asking to view them, according to The Guardian.

In the papers that were shown to The Guardian, Templ did indeed note his aunt’s name and address on an application form, multiple times.

Robert Amsterdam, an international lawyer with Amsterdam and Partners, which is representing Templ on a pro bono basis, said that 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, who has filed a petition in the matter with the United Nations human rights council, accused Austria of seeking revenge against Templ for his efforts to expose the state’s "woefully inadequate" attempts to compensate the Jewish owners of stolen properties.

Templ's book Unser Wien (Our Vienna) listed hundreds of prominent properties seized by the Nazis that were never returned, including major Viennese landmarks – among them the Fürth sanatorium, which is the building that his family claims.

The 19th-century villa was a private birth clinic that belonged to Lothar Fürth, a cousin of Templ’s grandmother. According to The Guardian, a month before the property was seized on 3 April 1938, Fürth, who headed 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 went 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.”