Stephan Templ, a longtime critic of Austria’s role in confiscating art and real estate from Viennese Jews during World War II, is at the beginning of an absurd one-year prison sentence in his native country, under circumstances that can only be described as Kafkaesque. He should be released immediately; if he isn’t, the Austrian government risks looking like it is trying to silence a critic of its horrific behavior during the Nazi era. That, too, is the conclusion of a group of 75 prominent Holocaust scholars who, on September 29, wrote a letter to Hans Peter Manz, the Austrian ambassador to the United States, urging him to ask Austrian President Heinz Fischer to reconsider Templ’s case. That Manz never replied to the scholars’ letter merely adds another disturbing element to the saga.
Templ, 53, a journalist and architect, is the author, along with Tina Walzer, of the 2001 book Our Vienna: Aryanization the Austrian Way, which detailed in no uncertain terms the extent that the Nazis and their Austrian collaborators misappropriated Viennese hotels, apartment buildings, cinemas, and 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 two authors wrote.
The book received very little publicity in Vienna until March 2002, when New York Times reporter Steven Erlanger called the book “acerbic,” noting that what distinguished it from previous accounts of Aryanization was the incredible level of detail that Templ and Walzer uncovered about confiscated businesses and buildings and the names of their former owners. “The book provides a bizarre walking guide to one of Europe’s great cities,” Erlanger wrote. Since the publication of his book, Templ has also written articles in a German newspaper critical of Austria’s restitution process. In his writings, Templ named names and revealed that a number of prominent Austrians were living in property stolen from Jewish owners.
“What Stephan Templ reveals in his book is that a lot of property, important property—downtown Vienna, hotels, restaurants, movie theatres, other buildings—was never returned to their Jewish owners,” explains Rafael Medoff, the director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington. “He opened up really painful questions that have to be confronted. It’s not enough for the Austrian public to acknowledge the truth about Austrian support for Nazism; that’s one, but the next necessary step is actually compensating victims and to give back the property that was stolen from them.”
One of the buildings stolen from its rightful Jewish owners was a private hospital near the Ringstrasse, in Vienna, owned by Templ’s former relatives, Lother Furth and his wife. After the Anschluss, in March 1938, the Furths’ persecution was so perverse that the sanatorium’s concierge forced Furth to clean the sidewalk in front of the building with a toothbrush. A month later, the Furths had had enough. One night, they snuck back into the hospital, obtained some poison, and injected it. The Furths had no children.