Jewish Journal

The Forest That Haunts Austrian Politics

by Richard Z. Chesnoff

Posted on Feb. 17, 2000 at 7:00 pm

If you were concerned about the inclusion of an extreme right-wing party in the new Austrian government, try this one on for size. While Freedom Party leader Joerg Haider has been busily trying to waltz away from previous statements praising parts of Austria's Nazi past -- and has even spoken of the need to make amends for what was stolen from Austria's Jews -- the fact is that his own personal fortune, and much of the financing of his racist party, is based on profits from a prime timber forest in southern Austria that Haider's family coerced out of a Jewish family during the Nazi reign of terror.

The lush Baerental (Valley of the Bears) forest extends over more than 4,000 acres in southern Austria. Originally the property of an Italian Jew named Giorgio Roifer, it was grabbed by Haider's great, great uncle, Joseph Webhofer, a leading Austrian Nazi, shortly after the Nazis took control of Austria during the Anschluss of 1938. The Nuremberg Racial Laws, which were as warmly welcomed by many Austrians as the Nazis were, forbade Jews from owning property in the extended Reich. Land, homes, art and anything else of value was simply "Aryanized."

The Roifers were Italian -- ostensibly allies of the Third Reich. While their land could not be expropriated in 1938, they were forced to sell the forest for a pittance in a murky and certainly immoral deal involving blocked bank accounts and scandalous arm-twisting. Even that amount was denied them and kept in Nazi banks. The Roifers fled to Palestine -- and their descendants have been seeking compensation ever since. In 1954, Roifer's widow, Mathilde, did receive what is now worth about $120,000. Austrian press reports say the forest is worth about $16 million today.

Haider himself was "given" the forest by his great uncle, Wilhelm Webhofer, in 1986. The Freedom Party fuhrer insists to this day that his family obtained it legally, and once even claimed that the Roifers "must have done well" in the deal, because it was brokered by "the Jew Loew from Villach." The fact was, reports Peter Green of the International Herald Tribune, that Loew was a Catholic -- and the Roifers certainly didn't do well.

Roifers' 73-year-old granddaughter, Naomi Merhav, a retired Israeli museum director, now insists that the 1938 so- called sale was "invalid." Haider, she says, should either pay a reasonable sum, or return the forest to her family. "Haider got rich selling my family's wood, and he is in power now with the help of my money," she recently told an interviewer.

Haider, whose party is racist and harshly anti-immigrant, once praised Hitler's labor policies and referred to SS veterans as "decent people." In recent weeks, he has been trying desperately to disassociate himself from those statements. Unfortunately, many of his neo-Nazi followers don't. Part of his new pitch has been to urge that Austria take "pertinent measures" in cases where Austria "inflicted great injustice on our Jewish fellow citizens or wiped out their families." Thus far, there have been no signs that that includes either the Roifers or the Forest of the Valley of the Bears.

Austria, which has traditionally tried to perpetuate a myth that it was a victim of Nazism, not an active collaborator, has one of the worst restitution records of any country in Europe. While Germany has largely settled claims for property stolen from its Jews, Austria has returned only a tiny part of the art, books, land, bank accounts and other assets stolen by Austrian Nazis. Sixty-five thousand Austrian Jews died in the Nazi Holocaust. About 21,000 Austrian Holocaust survivors still live around the world. And there are literally tens of thousands of outstanding claims for confiscated property that is now in the hands of either the Austrian state or Austrian citizens -- such as Haider.

Richard Z. Chesnoff is senior correspondent of US News & World Report and the author of the critically acclaimed "Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews & Committed the Greatest Theft in History" (Doubleday). He is in Los Angeles this week to address the annual Women's Campaign luncheon of the Jewish Federation at the Beverly Wilshire on February 16.

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