CHAPTER ONE: Closing the Circle – My Quest for Reparations

I’m going to try something – “crowdsourcing” the first chapter of my book about my great-grandfather’s quest for Holocaust reparations. I am looking for feedback. Here’s the “elevator pitch” – “Closing the Circle: Finishing My Great-Grandfather’s Quest for Reparations” tells the story of a family whose livelihood was stolen from them when Hitler’s men seized the family business in the spring of 1938. Sigmund Lichtenthal and his son, Paul, who spent nearly two years in concentration camps before emigrating to the United States, spent the remainder of their lives unsuccessfully trying to obtain reparations. More than 70 years later, Sigmund’s great-granddaughter was able to complete his quest using letters and records found in the family papers.”

My mother rarely spoke of her childhood days in Vienna. When she did, it was mostly to lament the loss of her beloved Nuremberg Kitchen[1], or the fact that she “could have been a Princess.” As a child I remember her speaking German only to her mother. Even that was a rare occurrence. I actually chose German for my foreign language choice in school because it I wanted to know what they were saying. Generally, the topic of “das deutsche Gesprach” was money-related, or some antic my father had recently pulled. (My parents divorced when I was seven.)

There was never any discussion of the Holocaust. Despite the fact that we are 100% Jewish. Despite the fact my mother and her family came to America from Vienna, Austria in 1938. Despite the fact they lost everything to the Nazis. Despite the fact my mother’s father spent nearly two years in concentration camps.

Occasionally my mother would let a tidbit would slip out. “This is the candleholder my cousin gave me when we came to America.” “If it wasn’t for Uncle Max, my father never would have gotten out.” “I might had had a sibling, if it wasn’t for Hitler.” I’d press for more but it was clear that was all I’d get.

Sadly, my grandfather had a fatal heart attack in 1959. I was 4. I never had the chance to ask him anything. My grandmother never spoke of her life in Austria at all. In fact, she rarely spoke about anything personal. My “Omi” died in 1972. I was a senior in high school. Old enough to ask the hard questions. But I didn’t.

If it wasn’t for my daughter Caitlin, important stories may have gone unheard. Sometime in the late 1990s, Caitlin had a school assignment for which she decided to videotape her grandmother. During the interview Caitlin asked questions about what my mother’s emigration to the United States was like. The interview lasted nearly 10 minutes. I heard things I never knew. It was like a relief valve opened. After that day, the conversation continued. Not surprisingly, even after more than 60 years, the sense of loss was still there. So, in 2002, when I learned there might be a chance to obtain some justice for my mother, I went right to work.  

Many Austrians zealously greeted the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938.  The days following the Anschluss were marked by violence against the Jews by their neighbors, many of who were enthusiastically participating in the mayhem. The Jews had their homes and businesses looted. They were beaten and humiliated. They were mandated to file a Declaration of Assets, providing the Nazis a detailed accounting of who owned what and what value their possessions could bring to the new regime. This was followed by a process called Aryanization. In Nazi ideology, an Aryan was a person of Caucasian race but not of Jewish descent. Jewish owners of businesses and real estate were forced to sell to Aryans at whatever price was determined by the government. The proceeds from the sales would be put into locked accounts to which the Jewish owner had very little access. The Germans considered these sales transactions as perfectly legal. In truth it was simple thievery buried in legalese. But, because the Germans truly believed in the legality of their actions, they left a long paper trail, making the task of obtaining reparations much easier.

Also making my task easier was that my grandfather Paul and his father, Sigmund Lichtenthal, were determined to obtain reparations for the losses sustained in 1938. That we are a family of “savers” didn’t hurt either. As the self-designated curator of our family “museum” I had access to family documents going back to 1875. In addition to the usual vital records the collection also includes documentation related to the growth and loss of the family hat business, Lital, and hundreds of pages of correspondence related to Paul and Sigmund’s quest for reparations. Among the most significant documents were inventory lists prepared by Sigmund, detailing the contents of his businesses and residence.

I never really knew my grandfather nor my great-grandfather, who died two years before his son in 1957. But it was obvious to me that their efforts should not have been in vain. It took nearly 70 years, but finally I was able to finish what my ancestors had started – a recognition of the loss of a lifetime of achievement.

There was so much information to go through, the majority of which was in German. My high-school German was pretty rusty by 2002 and there was a deadline of May 28, 2003. I knew there was no way I could get hundreds of pages of documents translated and processed in time. I decided to focus on the inventories and the history of the business in order to submit our claim in time.

The General Settlement Fund for Victims of National Socialism[2] was established in the wake of the Washington Agreement of 2001 and was endowed with $210 million in US dollars. The amount each claimant would ultimately receive depended on the number of claims submitted by the May 28 deadline. The notice I received in February 2003 listed the categories of losses that were eligible and stated that “losses and damages will only be acknowledged if they were not compensated through a previous measure.” A cursory look through the papers revealed my great-grandfather had received some small reparation from the Hilsfonds[3] previous to his death in 1957 but I decided to take my chances and send what I had. I figured whatever small compensation had been already received would just be deducted from whatever final decision was made.

My mother was 71 years old at the time. She and her husband still had a $50,000 mortgage on their home. Money was quite tight. Whatever relief I could obtain might provide them with a more secure financial future.

On April 18, 2003 I mailed a large packet of information off to Vienna. To support our claim, I included a copy of the “Memorandum” written by Sigmund (1954) in which he recounted the history of his business and inventories of two residences, the factory and several retail branches.

Eight months later I received a letter from Vienna explaining the status of our application. More than 18,000 applications had been submitted. We were advised to expect “… a lengthy procedural duration…  due to the historical events of the National Socialist regime and the long time that elapsed since then, supporting documents are often not available to our applicant anymore and research on our part is required.” In addition, there were still two pending class action suits in the USA against Austria. Funding could not be released to the General Settlement Fund until these suits were settled. We hoped the delay would not be too long as my step-father Al Falcone was no longer working due to a cancer diagnosis.

February 2004 brought some good news – there were two additional funds my mother might be eligible for. An amendment to the National Fund provided for a one-time lump sum payment of $7,000 US dollars as compensation for the loss of apartment and small business leases, household property and personal valuables and effects. Another fund had been established in 1995. The “Payment as a Gesture” was also a one-time lump sum payment made to “persons who were personally exposed to persecution by the nationalist socialist regime.” I filled out the questionnaire and sent it in. Three months later, on May 24, Al passed away.

In August we were informed our application for the lump-sum payment had been approved, “…we sincerely hope that the positive completion of your application is seen as a sign that – in the name of the Republic of Austria – the wrongs which harmed you and your family in the darkest days of Austrian history have been remembered.” A month later, $6980 was wired to my mother’s bank account. In October, an additional $6310.90 was deposited. Applying for those additional funds was certainly worth it. My mother had been approved for both!

In June 2005 we received a notification that after all funds from the 2004 claims had been made, there was some money left over. Therefore, my mother was entitled to her share of this remaining amount – 1,000 Euro. In July $1,179 US dollars were wired to her account.

We had yet to hear anything regarding our original claim to the General Settlement Fund. Nearly $14,470 in restitution was certainly helpful to my mother now that she was carrying the financial load of the home by herself. But it seemed a pittance compared to the hundreds of thousands her family most likely lost.

Three years later, on August 9, 2007 we received the decision. Approximately 20,600 applications had been processed. All claims would be paid out of the fund on a percentage basis. The nine-page decision listed every entry I included on the initial application and gave specific reasons why the claim for that entry was or was not approved. In summary, of the six properties I listed, not one was approved. The reason given was that ownership of the “immovable properties” could not be established. This was most likely because the Lichtenthals rented as opposed to owned the buildings.

My claim for the “moveable property”, contents of the apartment at 43 Silbergasse had already been paid through the $7,000 lump sum payment in 2004. The claim for the loss of Paul’s potential income was accepted in the amount of $24,567.56. I wondered if, had he lived longer, the amount would have been higher.

The decisions related to Sigmund’s loss were more positive. Sigmund’s loss of “movable property” was valued at $1965.40. The contents of his property at 88a Mariahilferstrasse was determined to be $27,057.08. Regarding the claim of the loss of the business, Lital, there already had been some sort of settlement related to the business located at that address, accepted by Sigmund in 1948, which made any further claim regarding Lital ineligible.

The claim included losses for five of Lital’s branches. Of those, four were accepted: 6 Nordbergstrasse ($35,344.51), 175 (or 105) Hernalser Hauptstrasse ($35,344.51), 94 Simmeringer Hauptstrasse ($133,123.37), and 18 Praterstrasse ($108,9981.67). The claim for the branch located at 93 Favoritenstrasse was rejected. Here again, previously unknown to me, a settlement had already been reached. Considering the date of the settlement with the Restitution Commission at the Regional Court for Civil Law Matters in Vienna was 1962, the claim must have been accepted by my grandmother, Rose Spiegel Lichtenthal.[4]

The claim regarding loss of income for Sigmund was valued at $12,283.78. Perhaps this was reduced in comparison to Paul due to Sigmund’s advanced age. In 1938, he was 63, close to retirement age. Paul, on the other hand, was only 38 years old.

The smallest amount awarded was $982.70. This was for “debentures” – money owed to Sigmund.

The total amount of loss was declared to be $379,650.58. That would have been a real windfall for my mother. Unfortunately, that was not how the procedure worked. Each item claimed was determined using either a “claims-based” procedure or an “equity-based” procedure. Losses determined by the claims-based procedure would be awarded at 18% of the determined value and those using the equity-based procedure would be paid at 13% the determined value. Only the occupation losses were calculated using the equity-based procedure. All the other items would be paid at 13% their determined value.

My mother was approved to receive a total of $42,542.66.

On October 18, 2007, we received word that “On December 7, 2005, the last remaining lawsuit in the USA of relevance to the General Settlement Fund was dismissed… the way is now open for you to receive an initial payment.” That initial payment amounted to $39,807.62 US dollars. This amounted to 10% (of the 13%) of the amount determined by the claims-based procedure and 15% (of the 18%) for the equity-based claims. The letter also cautioned us “that the amount of any possible final payment can only be calculated after all applications have been decided upon.”

By the end of 2007, my mother’s financial situation was pretty bleak. She received about $1400 monthly from Social Security. The mortgage was $410 a month and her house taxes were about the same. She had high medical expenses due to a variety of chronic illnesses. The only way she was holding on to her beloved home was to take out a home equity line to pay the house taxes.

Finally, in December 2007, nearly four years after we sent the initial application, we were notified payment would be released. On January 3, 2008, $39,779.62 was transmitted electronically to my mother’s account.

My mother spent the next couple years in and out of the hospital. Weekly dialysis treatments and frequent ambulance trips took a toll on her finances. Luckily $39,000 lasts a while! But, as the balance in her account dwindled the family became concerned.

In January 2010, we were informed that the final payment would be released. “The General Settlement Fund… [was] endowed with 210 million US Dollar[s]. As the sum of the claim values of all applications is considerably higher than the sum which is at the Fund’s disposal, each applicant will only receive a pro rata payment.” The actual percentages of the award were closer to 10.6% (instead of 13%) for the claims-based procedure and 17.16% (instead of 18%) for the equity-based procedure.

The initial payment of $39,779.62 was subtracted from the approved award of $42,542.66, leaving a balance of $2,735.04. On March 12, 2010, a week after her 78th birthday, $2705.04 was wired to my mother’s bank. Exactly 72 years after that fateful day. The day of the Anschluss – March 12, 1938 – the day the German troops first entered Austria.


[1] I later found out she actually had brought that toy kitchen from Vienna to New York, only to have it stolen from the basement of their apartment house!

[2] Allgemeiner Entschädigungsfonds für Opfer des Nationalsozialismus

[3] The Hilsfonds was established in 1956 and provided a one-time payment to persecuted Austrians.

[4] Restitutionskommission beim Landgericht für Zivilrecht in Wien

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