In 1995, Hannah M. Lessing took the helm of the Austrian National Fund, an institution entrusted with Holocaust recognition, restitution and remembrance. At the time, her father, himself a survivor, was less than impressed with her decision to turn her back on a successful banking career. His response? “Can you give me back my childhood? Can you bring back my mother from Auschwitz?”
“That’s when I decided to do it, with the knowledge that we cannot turn back the hands of time, that we cannot repair anything,” Hannah explains. And true to her word, she approached the then President of Parliament and asked for the job.
“He asked what I would need to get started. I told him that I need you to write a letter, together with me, where we say that we’re sorry, that it’s too late and we are aware that nothing can be repaired. Then, I need historians who will research, I need staff who will listen, and I need open access to the archives.
“‘Very interesting’, he said, and he told me to send him a letter with all of my ideas. I left the meeting thinking I’ll never hear from him again. Still, I wrote the letter and two weeks later I had the job.
“Through our work, we seek to combat the historical amnesia in Austria. For decades, the atrocities committed were shrouded in a veil of silence. The National Fund was the first organisation to officially recognise Austrian survivors and to give them the recognition that they deserve.”
Over the coming years, Hannah and her team would find as many as 30,000 survivors, in 17 countries, all originating from Austria. “One of the beautiful things about the fund is that it’s not exclusively for Jewish survivors,” she confirms. “It’s a fund dealing with all persecutees from Austria, be they Roma, Sinti, the handicapped, political prisoners or homosexuals.
“We didn’t know what to expect. I told my employees, ‘don’t count on people being grateful, because they haven’t been dealt with for 50 years. We will reach out and we will listen.’ And yet, we were humbled from day one. It seems that we were exactly what they were looking for. Someone to reach out and say, ‘we’re sorry’.
“We received many, many letters that after we had sent the first letter and issued the first payment, people passed. Their children would write to me and say that it was finally an opportunity for closure.”
Ultimately, the National Fund would be allocated a total of $360m with which to compensate the victims. Naturally, such an undertaking required painstaking research, not least because it was also a fund for heirs. At its peak, Hannah assembled a team of 180 employees, including 40 historians, 40 archivists and 40 legal clerks.
“I could only actually compensate for 12 per cent and that was really horrible. But, because we had already dealt with survivors for a long time, we could reconcile with them, because we were giving back their family history. As of today, we have researched 30,000 Jewish family histories, we gave back all of the documents and we compensated for a certain amount of losses.”
And Hannah fondly recalls returning a painting to an elderly survivor, Freddy, here in the Carmel. It was deemed too expensive to ship from Vienna, and so Hannah personally obliged.
“I will never forget it,” she adds. “The feeling is indescribable. These are really the pieces of work which are the most beautiful things, that you can return something. I went with our Speaker of the House in June to New York, where we returned one book to a family. No matter how small it is, it’s a piece of family history that you’re returning.”
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