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City of Vienna Returns World War I-Era Torah Cover to Brooklyn-Based Descendants of Holocaust Survivors

March 27, 2006

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New York, N.Y. 3/27/06: The City of Vienna, Austria has returned an early 20th century Torah cover to its rightful owners, the result of five years of negotiations spearheaded by the Governor Pataki’s Holocaust Claims Processing Office.

"The restitution of this family heirloom is another example of our ongoing efforts to seek justice for those who were victimized during one of the darkest periods in history," Governor Pataki said. “This Torah cover is rich in tradition, highlights both the honor and the memory of not just the Wesel family, but the entire Jewish community which is so vibrantly widespread throughout the State of New York. Artifacts such as this one enlighten us with a wealth of historical and cultural appreciation; they provide all of us with an important bridge that links our rich past and our bright future. I am very proud to be a part of returning this piece of history to the Wesel and Bauer families."

The Torah cover, which was lost to its rightful owners during the Holocaust, was part of the Berger Collection of the Vienna Jewish Museum, a municipal museum. On Tuesday, March 14, 2006, the Vienna City Council voted unanimously to return it to the the descendants of Gavriel and Miriam Wesel. Mrs. SuzanneKohl, who originally filed the claim, accepted the Torah cover on behalf of the family. Mrs. Kohl will present the cover for use by Congregation Adas Yereim, a Hasidic Jewish community, in Williamsburg & Boro Park, Brooklyn.

Stadtrat Dr. Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, Vienna City Councilor for Culture and Science, transported the Torah cover from Vienna to deliver it personally to the family. “It is a great pleasure to be able to personally present the Wesel-Bauer Torah Cover from the Vienna Jewish Museum’s collection to the heirs of Miriam Wesel, who originally commissioned it,” Dr. Mailath-Pokorny said. “By presenting this ritual object to the generations of heirs in the United States we are also conveying a piece of Viennese Jewish culture. The City of Vienna is committed to the return of art and cultural objects that were stolen during the Nazi period.”

“When he established the Holocaust Claims Processing Office within the Banking Department, Governor Pataki envisioned a truly effective avenue for restitution of Holocaust claims,” said Banking Superintendent Diana L. Taylor. “When the Kohls saw the Wesel-Bauer Torah cover in the Vienna museum, they initiated the recovery process of this precious family heirloom. Thanks to the cooperation of the HCPO and the City of Vienna we stand here today at the end of an arduous but ultimately successful journey.”

Mrs. Suzanne Kohl said, “The Holocaust Claims Processing Office honored my claimand worked tirelessly to bring our claim to fruition. Together with the esteemed Vienna city government, they helped reunite a Torah mantle belonging to Miriam Wesel (of blessed memory) with her descendants. This mantle is a precious remnant of the Jewish glory in Vienna’s pre-Holocaust era.”

The Torah cover dates to 1919, when it was commissioned by Miriam Wesel to commemorate her husband Gavriel Wesel’s safe return from World War I. It was used in Marpe Lanefesch, a small synagogue in Vienna’s second district. Mr. Wesel died in 1927, leaving Mrs. Wesel and three children living in Vienna and facing the growing anti-Semitic movement. Mrs. Wesel and her youngest child Gertrude did not escape for New York until after the horrific November Pogrom (Kristallnacht) in 1938. They lived across the street from the Marpe Lanefesch synagogue that housed the Torah cover and witnessed the building’s destruction in the Pogrom.

Mrs. Wesel fled to the United States with her three children and settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Members of the family and the Viennese congregation managed to reach America and settled in Brooklyn, where they founded Congregation Adas Yereim in Williamsburg. Mrs. Kohl, who will be accepting the Torah cover at the ceremony, is a member of this congregation.

The Torah cover was part of the Berger Collection at the Jewish Museum Vienna. Max Berger, a Holocaust survivor who returned to Vienna after World War II, actively bought Judaica in an effort to salvage what was left of Jewish life and culture in Europe. After his death in 1988, the City of Vienna purchased his entire collection for a museum it was planning to open in 1990—the Jewish Museum Vienna, where the Berger Collection was an early focal point and continues to be of central importance.

The Torah cover is about 31 inches tall and 18 inches wide. It is made of blue fabric lined in brown silk, with a design embroidered in gold. The image is of the two pillars, Jachin and Boaz, before the eastern entrance of Solomon’s Temple, the first temple in Jerusalem. The pillars, representing harmony and balance, are wrapped in a stylized acanthus leaf motif often used in Greek and Roman architecture. Atop each pillar is a lion rampant. The front paws of the lions support a large red and gold crown.

The Holocaust Claims Processing Office, a division of the New York State Banking Department, was created to recover assets deposited in European banks; monies never paid in connection with insurance policies issued by European insurers; and reclaim lost or looted art for the rightful heirs. The office offers its services at no charge to claimants. Since it was opened in 1997, it has received a total of 4,769 claims from 48 states and 37 countries regarding Holocaust-era bank accounts, insurance policies or lost or stolen art. The HCPO has been able to return approximately $32 million in bank claims, more than $14 million in insurance claims and has previously settled 12 art claims.

The HCPO staff is comprised of lawyers, archivists, historians, political scientists, art historians, bankers, and linguists. The combined experience and skill sets permit it to perform complex historical and technical research that results in significant settlements for claimants, without having to resort to litigation.

Anyone who believes they may have a potential claim or who wishes to obtain additional information regarding the HCPO should call 1-800-695-3318 or log on to its Web site at www.claims.state.ny.us.

The New York State Banking Department is the regulator for all state-chartered banking institutions, virtually all of the United States offices of international banking institutions, all of the State’s mortgage brokers, mortgage bankers, check cashers and budget planners. The aggregate assets of the depository institutions supervised by the Banking Department are over $1.3 trillion.

In addition to regulating banking institutions, the Banking Department is active in informing and educating all New Yorkers on banking matters. To contact the Banking Department, please call 1-877-BANK-NYS or visit our Web site at www.banking.state.ny.us.

 

 

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