Not always known for acknowledging its Nazi history, Austria has become something of a leader in trying to compensate victims of the Holocaust. Hannah Lessing, the secretary-general of the country’s National Fund of Victims of National Socialism, described to an audience in North Caldwell how the parliament-authorized fund is inspiring emulation in Germany, France, and even possibly in Poland.
“Many people didn’t want to be reminded of Austria’s calamitous past,” she told the 400 people gathered at the Green Brook Country Club on Oct. 2 for its monthly book club luncheon. “The subject was suppressed for many years, but the overall climate has changed.”
Lessing, 51, was there thanks to an invitation from book club member and fellow Vienna native, Vera Chapman, who lives now in Verona. The two women met many years ago at a Holocaust-related event in New York and became close friends.
Lessing’s presence at the book club was particularly welcome. For the past eight years, the book club, led by Marlene Cohen of Short Hills, has been meeting for events featuring a speaker and at times an entertainer on the program. With a capacity crowd booked to attend, Cohen had to adapt to the fact that her keynote speaker, Anne Marie O’Connor, wasn’t coming.
As it turned out, Lessing not only lives in the city portrayed in the book by O’Connor that was under discussion, she also knows the writer. Using Skype, the two women connected with the help of screens and multiple projectors.
O'Connor addressed the audience from Israel, where she is working on a project, telling them about her book, The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. She showed them pictures of the artist and his famous Jewish model, with whom he was rumored to have had an affair, as well as his other models — and possible lovers.
Touching on the richly layered detail of her book, she described the Viennese society in which Klimt and Bloch-Bauer came together, and then what transpired years later, after his muse had died, when the Nazis confiscated the family’s artworks and mansion. The battle by their heirs, led by Adele’s niece Maria Altmann, became one of the triumphs in the saga of Jewish efforts to reclaim art plundered by the Nazis.
“My work has a lot to do with combating historical amnesia,” Lessing said, adding that books like O’Connor’s “ignite people’s interest in the fascinating lessons of history.”
Lessing’s own roots are similar to Bloch-Bauer’s, in the cultured elite of old Vienna, but her story encompasses a very different side of postwar Jewish life. Her father survived the Holocaust by fleeing to Palestine. He returned to Vienna and married a woman who converted to Judaism. Lessing was raised Jewish in a community of about 10,000. She had embarked on a career in finance, but in 1995 when the Austrian Parliament established the National Fund and was looking for a leader, she leaped at the opportunity.
Her father, she said, was not initially supportive. “When I asked him what he would want to hear from someone in my position, he said, ‘Can you give me back my childhood? Can you bring back my mother? No? — then you can’t give me anything.’”
But she went ahead with the effort, insisting on adequate staffing, the help of historians to do research, and the chance to travel wherever needed to track down potential beneficiaries.
The fund deals not just with Jews but also with the Nazis’ other Austrian victims — the Gypsies, the handicapped, and homosexuals. In the past 18 years, it has vetted claims from 160,000 people in 75 countries, and has disbursed around $600 million, most it in $6,000 lump sum payments.
The money is not assessed on the basis of the suffering, and is seldom the key issue. Lessing said, “It is simply an acknowledgement of what these people went through. Its impact is in its symbolic value. From the start, I told my staff, ‘You can’t repair anything. Don’t expect gratitude.’”
She and her staff are also committed to safeguarding victims’ stories, the good and the bad. “This is a legacy of remembrance for future generations,” Lessing said.
However, the very process of reparation can create “re-traumatization,” as people remember a past they had tried to forget. With the influx of claims diminishing, her priority now is to develop an international network of therapeutic services for survivors.
“As long as there are survivors alive,” Lessing said, “we are still needed. I can only hope that we have laid down the fundamentals for healing.”
Ernest Haas of Park Ridge came to hear Lessing speak out of a particularly personal curiosity. As a child, he fled his home in Bavaria to escape the Nazis, but was caught and imprisoned in a series of concentration camps. “My wife has urged me to try to get compensation for what my family lost,” he said, “but I felt it’s too much to get involved with. But I found what she said very interesting.”