Austrian Jews want an Israeli archive

May 19, 2011 - 3:45 PM

VIENNA (AP) — Austria's Jewish community is taking an Israeli organization to court in a bid to force it to return a trove of historical documents.

At issue is archive material about the Austrian capital's once vibrant Jewish community that those who survived the Nazi era loaned to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem after World War II.

About three weeks ago, the Vienna-based community filed a lawsuit in a Jerusalem court to obtain the material because it is rightfully theirs and should be given back, the community's president, Ariel Muzicant, said Thursday.

The goal, he added, is to reunite all documents in Vienna that ended up abroad after the horrors of the Holocaust, which killed an estimated 65,000 Austrian Jews.

"After the war, the Jewish community in Vienna had disintegrated, but now we're building up again and we want to have these things back in Austria," he said.

"In particular, there are researchers and historians here who speak German and have great interest" in the documents, he added, noting that the Israeli archive holds about 40 percent of several million pages of archival material about Vienna's Jews.

Archive Director Hadassah Assouline said the community handed over the materials in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s with the understanding they would stay in Jerusalem to be managed, catalogued and preserved.

"We object to this," she said of the lawsuit.

She also accused the community of censoring documents it already has in its possession, saying researchers come to her archive to get access to microfilm of materials from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that also were given to Austria's Jewish community.

"People come from all over the world to us, including people who come to us because they can't see materials in Vienna," she said. "Ours are archives for the entire Jewish people, especially for those originally from Vienna."

Muzicant rejected Assouline's allegations.

"That's absolutely not true. She's trying to sidestep the issue of who owns the archive," Muzicant said. "It's ours."

Muzicant said his community is in negotiations with other countries — including Russia, the Czech Republic and Poland — for the return of similar materials.

"Some are more inclined (to return the material), while others are less so," he said.

The government of Israel sits on the board of directors of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, which was set up in 1939 and holds the archives of hundreds of Jewish communities.

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Daniel Estrin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.