The Meaning of Restitution

The Meaning of Restitution


The Mouse that Roared


(published in Der Standard.  Vienna, September 24/25, 2005)

By Dorit Whiteman


     After we fled Austria in September 1938, following the Anschluss, my parents rarely spoke of what we had lost. Compared to the loss of life of so many relatives and friends, the loss of possessions meant little.  My parents did not complain about the hardships of our lives either. During our early years of emigration, my father, who had been an esteemed physician in Vienna, worked as a lab assistant and as a nurse. But mostly he was unemployed. After some years in New York, he studied to retake his medical exams. After he obtained a license, it took a whole year before he had his first patient. My mother had been one of the first women to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Vienna and had successfully passed the Staats examination for music.  She was the owner and director of an internationally known school, the Pensionat Stern, but after emigration she worked as a maid, as an accountant, as a nurse and as a piano teacher. My parents never complained about our impoverished status. We were alive and together.  That was all that mattered.

     Before we left Vienna, a competitor, knowing that my mother was desperate to get rid of the school in order to be able to acquire an exit visa, took the opportunity to acquire the school for a pittance.  Later on the school was run by the State, all of its forty rooms.  No compensation was offered. Our personal possessions had been slated to be shipped to us overseas, but they never arrived. My parents mentioned that they had learned that the furniture, the objects d�art and everything else had been auctioned off at the Dorotheum.  Because my name is Dorit, that name stuck in my mind.

     Not knowing what the Dorotheum was, I assumed it was a second hand junk store. I was to be surprised.  A few years ago, I visited Vienna to speak at a meeting dealing with the Holocaust. As I was walking down the Graben, I saw a sign pointing to the Dorotheum. Excitedly I walked in that direction, and stared at- not at some junkyard � but at a palais. Finely crafted furniture and sparkling jewels met my eyes.  So that was the place where our possessions went! How ironic that such a proud institution stooped to work hand in glove with the Gestapo to squirrel away the possessions of the fleeing Jews. Amazed, I went inside and asked to speak to the director. I did not state my business. I was afraid that if I did, I might be denied an appointment. I was told the director was not in, but would I talk to Public Relations. �No,� I replied, �I only want to speak with the director.�  After some consternation by the secretary, a man appeared and introduced himself as a ---lawyer! Without explanation, they had known why I was there. I realized then that others must have come on similar errands. They were, in a way, expecting me.

     The man was all business. �I have come for my parents� belongings.� I explained. The lawyer spoke succinctly: �We are currently investigating the matter,� he replied. �And when will you come up with an answer?� I queried. �It�s been over fifty five years.� �We will let you know,� he replied curtly.  �We will send you a letter.�  There was no statement of regret. I bore no personal hostility to the lawyer. He was too young to have been culpable. But he might have said: �Madam, I regret that we have such a dark past and I am sorry that you are here on such a sad mission.� He reacted as if I were inquiring about a missing pound of potatoes. The avoidance of an apology, the negation of all responsibility was glaring. It incensed me and made the old events come fresh to my mind.     

     Someone advised me to visit the Kultusgemeinde (Jewish Community offices). If my parents� names were listed, I would be given a number which I was to present at the State Archives. At the Kultusgemeinde  I was handed a folder pertaining to my parents �case.� In it, authorized by the Gestapo, were the details of the requisitioning of our possessions described in a cold, bureaucratic manner. There were the names of each family member, children included, and the listing of possessions down to carpets and silver spoons. Even the moving company, which took our goods to the Dorotheum was listed.  It was signed by Alois Brunner, right hand man to Eichmann. The name sent a shudder down my spine. How fortunate we had been to be able to leave Vienna! How direct the monster had been on our trail!     

     I recognized that Vienna had changed. Not only were there so many young people who could bear no responsibility for the Hitler events, but also the atmosphere had changed. In the past, when the Holocaust was mentioned, the response usually had been: �Ja, das waren schlechte Zeiten,� implying that the Viennese during the war had been worse off than the Jewish population. Now there was some genuine regret and empathy and many of the newspapers openly referred to the Holocaust. But apparently the Dorotheum's attitude has not evolved similarly.  Its silence as well as its uncompromising attitude spoke volumes. In response to their measly assertion that they cannot locate the pertinent records, I am more than willing to give them my file signed by Alois Brunner itemizing our possessions which were delivered to the Dorotheum.

     And so when I received a call whether I want to join a class action against the Dorotheum I readily consented.   Did money have anything to do with it? Yes, it did. My father had worked his way up to become a well-known physician. My mother had been dedicated to the Pensionat and had developed it into a renowned institution. Yes, what they had accumulated through work should be theirs or be passed on to the next generation.  But more important was the sense that the Dorotheum should feel the impact of its appalling behavior. I owed it to my parents to do what I could in that direction.   

     Because the Dorotheum has passed into private hands, it might not be legally responsible. But  because the Dorotheum prospered by successfully selling much of the aryanized and looted property of Jewish citizens who were either murdered or forced to flee, it is surely morally responsible; it should therefore acknowledge in some tangible form its shameful past and be required to make good for its ill gotten gains.  It is not I who should be pressured to drop my accusations against the Dorotheum. It is they who should be pressured to acknowledge their moral and financial debt.     

     As an individual I do not have a great impact. But I did not to fade meekly into the night. Even if I am only a mouse, I wanted to be the mouse that roared. Even if only for a few moments.

      Nothing has happened so far. Maybe nothing ever will. But at least I roared.

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