The Aryanization of Jewish Property in Austria during the Holocaust

by Lisa Silverman


  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Further reading

1. Historical context of the source

The elimination of the civil rights and liberties of Jews that began after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933 included the gradual but systematic plundering of Jewish real estate, businesses, and other property for the enrichment of non-Jews. What began as increasing pressure to sell their homes and businesses in preparation for emigration soon turned into forcible ‘sales’, for which German Jewish owners received little or no proceeds. The racial nature of these transactions, in which ‘Arier’ (Aryans) were legally entitled to take over property from Jews, is reflected in the term ‘Arisierung’ (Aryanization.) The process of aryanizing Jewish property was also implemented in other countries occupied by Nazi Germany. Research on this topic shows that the transfer of Jewish property to non-Jewish ownership involved a complicated mix of economic, political, and social factors that varied not only according to country, but also according to region.

As the first country annexed by Nazi Germany on 12 March 1938, Austria set the stage for the implementation of Aryanizations in other territories that Germany would later occupy. Unlike the gradual process of Aryanization in Germany, the confiscation of Jewish property in Austria began immediately following the annexation. Already during the first weeks after this date, eager Austrians began ransacking and plundering Jewish property, despite the fact that the Nazis had issued explicit regulations against uncontrolled looting. During these unsanctioned Aryanizations, Jews were also publicly degraded and humiliated, suggesting that property confiscations were closely tied to the stripping of Jews’ identity not only as Austrians, but also as human beings. During the course of these events, thousands were arrested, and other Jews were forced to wash the streets with brushes alongside cheering onlookers. Many Austrian Jews also took their own lives at this time. (Witek and Safrian 2008)

By May 1938, Nazi functionaries systematised the confiscation of property in Austria through an agency called the ‘Vermögensverkehrstelle’ (Assets Transfer Office) and the Austrian system – spearheaded by Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann – became a model for a functioning, efficient mechanism designed to strip property from Jews in other occupied countries. According to the Decree on the Registration of Jewish property passed in April, 1938, Jews were required to register assets of more than RM 5000, and also forced to pay hefty taxes. Jews were forced to compose detailed property declarations of all assets. Not only real estate, but also art, furniture, and household objects were plundered and in many cases later auctioned for sale. Some non-Jewish Austrians denounced their Jewish neighbors and terminated their leases. At that time, roughly 200,000 Jews lived in Austria, most of them in Vienna. However, Jewish property was also Aryanized in smaller towns throughout Austria, even those in which few Jews lived.

Like the Aryanizations themselves, the history of the restitution of Jewish-owned property after the end of World War II also varies by country. In the case of Austria, the political decisions of the Allied forces about how to deal with Austria played a significant role. In the Moscow Declaration of 30 October 1943, the United States, UK, and USSR declared that Austria should be referred to as a victim of Nazi aggression, rather than as a collaborator with Nazi Germany. This declaration made it easy for Austrians to ignore their role in aiding in the persecution of Jews, including Aryanizing their property. At the Potsdam Conference of July, 1945, the US, UK, and USSR decided not to demand reparations from Austria. Thereafter, the Austrian government was free to implement an incomplete process of restituting Jewish property, passing seven laws between 1946 and 1949. Despite some resistance from the general population and from the institutions ordered to implement the laws, a few Jews were able to reclaim their property. Many more were unable to do so.

Austria remained under the occupation of the Allied Forces until 1955, when it became a fully independent country. However, it was not until decades later that the Austrian government officially recognized the limitations of its early restitution laws and offered additional opportunities for Jews to reclaim their property, or to receive compensation for it. In 2001, the Austrian government ratified an agreement with the US government, international and national Jewish groups, as well as representatives for Austrian companies and lawyers for plaintiffs of Nazi victims, that was intended to settle remaining Nazi era restitution claims. (Sucharipa 2000).

In 2003, a Historikerkommission (commission of Historians) that had been set up by the Austrian government five years earlier to investigate the plunder of property under the Nazi regime and its postwar restitution made its final report available to the public. Its lengthy narrative covers a broad spectrum of themes connected with the confiscation of property from Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution, as well as the issue of Austrian programs for compensation and restitution after the end of the war. In all, the commission issued 53 reports (totaling approximately 14,000 pages) encompassing 47 separate projects, on which 160 researchers had spent five years working. The general conclusions drawn by the committee in their reports were grim: Jews and other victims suffered massive financial losses at the hands of their Austrian neighbors, who benefited financially from their crimes. After 1945, the restitution programs in Austria that were eventually set up hardly began to cover the extent of the losses, and were often only carried out halfheartedly, or partially.

2. Source

In 1939, Anna Kallmus, who had been born to Jewish parents in Vienna in 1878, wrote a letter to her younger sister Dora, who was by that time a well-known photographer living in Paris. In her letter, Anna discusses the need to pack up and sell their house (which they called ‘Haus Doranna’) in Frohnleiten, Austria, as a result of the implementation of Nazi Aryanization laws after March 1938. Although the sisters often wrote to each other in German, this letter was written in English, possibly to avoid censorship. The letter below from Anna to Dora is dated 26 April 1939:

D.M., thanks for your letters, one with your funny photos, I think you don’t look ill . . . Of course I know, that the visa affair will last a long time . . I am sitting in the verandah, the only place all over the house, where one finds a chair and a table. This morning we had all the furniture sent off to Graz, where it will have to wait for the permission to go off. So it only took us 3 and a half day to pull all down, what has been raised with much pain love and money in 20 years, such is life. . . . . [on packing clothes] This evening or tomorrow morning I shall say good bye to our mayor, who was especially friendly to me he is the true son of his mother, for whose loss he often cried here, when he was working at papering the rooms or laying carpets and linoleums. Tomorrow at 2pm we leave, on my first day in Vienna you shall get a letter . . .

(Papers of Dora Kallmus, Preus Photography Museum, Horten, Norway)

3. Discussion of the source

Anna had bought ‘Haus Doranna’ in 1919 and moved in immediately, while Dora maintained her apartment and photography studio in Vienna. In 1923, Dora moved to Paris, a city she preferred for its cosmopolitan flair and taste. In 1931 Anna transferred ownership of one half of the field next to the House to Dora, suggesting that the two, neither of whom had married, eventually planned to live there together. But after the Nazis marched into Austria in 1938, Anna was forced to deal with new regulations designed to expropriate Jews’ assets and force emigration. Like many others, the sisters were caught up in this vexing process. Many of the letters exchanged between the two at this time discussed the increasing danger to which they were exposed and suggest the depth of the sisters’ emotional investment in the house.

In 1939, as the letter reveals, Anna was finally forced to sell Haus Doranna to the town of Frohnleiten and move to Vienna. The placid tone and ironic language of the letter belie Anna’s pain and humiliation as she is not only forced to strip the home of its furnishings, but also make polite conversation with the Aryanizer, who, if we read between the lines, is a real ‘son of a bitch’ who cries for his own losses as he ‘redecorates’ the house he has forced them to sell. At that time, the mayor of the town was Karl Gollesch, an upholsterer by profession who had taken over the leadership of Frohnleiten in April, 1939 according to the laws implemented by Nazi regime to establish power structures in Austria.

Anna’s last letter to Dora was dated 25 October 1941. She wrote to her from Vienna, informing Dora that she was taking a trip and pleading with her to find a safe hiding place for herself. On November 7, 1941, friends in Vienna wrote to Dora that Anna had been deported to Lodz ten days earlier. From there, she was likely deported to Auschwitz and murdered. Dora, too, faced dangers of her own. After 1939, she was forced to sell her studio in Paris and live confined to her apartment, a deeply lonely experience. In August 1942, she managed to escape to a hiding place in the village in the Ardèche in the south of France, where she remained until after the war was over.

Although Dora is known to many as Madame d’Ora, the photographer famous for her outstanding fashion photographs and portraits of fin-de-siècle cultural luminaries, few people know that her sister was murdered in Auschwitz, or that in

1948, Dora was one of a few former Austrians who managed to reclaim Aryanized property when she won a protracted legal battle for the return of Haus Doranna. She first filed a claim for its return on 4 October 1946. Although she faced significant hurdles in obtaining its return, with the help of a local lawyer she managed to obtain its restitution in 1948.

Not many people know about the restitution of the house because the recovery of material assets after the Holocaust is typically seen as a footnote to the supposedly more meaningful events in the life of a victim of Nazi persecution. Tangible belongings that remain after a person’s death seemingly carry little weight when it comes to the deeper and more permanent loss of life. But material property is not an empty signifier of value: it also represents a relationship between owner and what is owned, meaning that both its loss and its return can be painful, traumatic experiences. Thus, the restitution of property after the Holocaust engages a complicated set of emotions for its original owners – especially when, as in the case of Madame d’Ora, its return relates to the fate of two sisters, one who was murdered and one who survived.

Laws establishing restitution in kind for expropriated Jewish property after the Holocaust were designed for restorative justice: to put things ‘back to normal’ by returning property to its rightful owner. As such, they were absolutely necessary in order to ensure that the Jews’ murderers did not also inherit the spoils from their victims. But the return of original objects can also force the owner to revisit the trauma of its loss, a rupture in ownership that – on the surface – appears healed once the original object is returned. Although she fought for the return of Haus Doranna, Madame d’Ora resisted returning to live in Frohnleiten until 1962, after she was greatly incapacitated and unable to work. Her return must have been both comforting and painful. She died in Frohnleiten in 1963, leaving no heirs. She left Haus Doranna to a friend.

4. Questions for discussion

  1. Beyond material gain, what were the goals of those who sought to Aryanize the property of Jewish victims of Nazi persecution?
  2.  How does knowing the historical context of the Aryanization of Jewish property in Austria help us interpret the letter Anna wrote to Dora in 1939?
  3.  What happened to Aryanized property in Austria after the end of the Holocaust?
  4.  Why didn’t Dora Kallmus return earlier to her and her sister’s home in Frohnleiten?
  5.  What happened to Dora Kallmus’s house after her death? What should happen to property taken from Jewish Nazi victims after their deaths?

5. Selected Bibliography

  • Adunka, Evelyn. (2000) Die vierte Gemeinde. Die Geschichte der Wiener Juden von 1945 bis heute. Geschichte der Juden in Wien, vol. 6. Institut für Geschichte der Juden in Österreich. Berlin: Philo.
  • Bailer-Galanda, Brigitte. (1993) Wiedergutmachung – kein Thema. Österreich und die Opfer des Nationalsozialismus. Vienna: Löcker.
  • Botz, Gerhard. (1992) ‘The Dynamics of Persecution in Austria, 1938-45.’ In Austrians and Jews in the Twentieth Century: from Franz Joseph to Waldheim, edited by Robert S. Wistrich, pp. 199-219. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Knight, Robert. (1988). ‘Ich bin dafür, die Sache in die Länge zu ziehen’: Wortprotokolle der österreichischen Bundesregierung von 1945-1952 über die Entschädigung der Juden. Frankfurt: Athenäum.
  • Sucharipa, Ernst. (2000) ‘Austria’s Measures of Restitution and Compensation for Holocaust Victims: Recent Negotiations and their Background.’ Österreichisches Jahrbuch für internationale Politik. 17: 75-95.
  • Walzer, Tina and Stephan Templ. (2001) Unser Wien: ‘Arisierung’ auf österreichisch. Berlin: Aufbau.
  • Witek, Hans, and Hans Safrian. (2008) Und keiner war dabei. Dokumente des alltäglichen Antisemitismus in Wien 1938. Vienna: Picus.

6. Suggestions for Further Reading

  • Beckermann, Ruth. (2005) Unzugehörig. Österreicher und Juden nach 1945. Vienna: Löcker.
  • Dean, Martin. Robbing the Jews: The Confiscation of Jewish Property in the Holocaust, 1933-1945. (2008) New York: Cambridge.
  • Dean, Martin, et. al. (2007) Robbery and Restitution: The Conflict over Jewish Property in Europe. New York: Berghahn.
  • Diner, Dan and Gotthard Wunberg. (2007) Restitution and Memory: Material Restitution in Europe. New York: Berghahn.
  • Embacher, Helga. (1995) Neubeginn ohne Illusion. Juden in Österreich nach 1945. Vienna: Picus.
  • Lehrman, Hal. ‘Austria and the Jews: Struggle for Restitution.’ (October 1954) Commentary 18: 308-318.
  • Marrus, Michael R. (2009) Some Measure of Justice: The Holocaust Era Restitution Campaign of the 1990s. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Silverman, Lisa. (2003) ‘Repossessing the Past? Property, Memory, and Austrian Jewish Narrative Histories.’ Austrian Studies 11: 138-53.
  • Vansant, Jacqueline. (2001) Reclaiming Heimat: Trauma and Mourning in Memoirs by Jewish Austrian Reémigrés. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
  • Wilder-Okladek, F. (1969) The Return Movement of Jews to Austria after the Second World War. The Haugue: Martinus Nijhoff.

7. Useful Web Resources

Provides links to research on the aryanization, restitution and compensation of property in Austria confiscated during the Holocaust.

8. Images

Photograph of Haus Doranna (copyright 2014 Lisa Silverman)





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