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Israeli: Haider Estate Deal Tainted

February 10, 2000

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Noemi Merhav remembers playing as a child in the thick pine trees of her father’s 3,700-acre estate in southern Austria. She wants her adult son to someday visit the place her family called ``The Forest.″

But the expanse of timberland now belongs to Austria’s far-right leader, Joerg Haider _ acquired, according to relatives of the original Jewish owners, in a tainted deal forced by Nazi property laws.

Haider has lauded the Nazis’ ``orderly employment policy″ and praised former members of Hitler’s Waffen SS, though he later apologized for the comments.

Merhav’s brother, Alex Rofe, holds a copy of a power-of-attorney document that could help them prove the family was pressured into selling the property to Haider’s great-uncle in 1941. The politician later inherited the land.

Plans by Merhav, 71, and her son to try to get back the estate they say is worth $15 million mark the latest twist in Israel’s outcry over the inclusion of Haider’s Freedom Party in the new Austrian government.

Israel recalled its ambassador from Austria last week in protest. The United States and Europe also have threatened diplomatic reprisals.

The one-time owner of the land, timber merchant Giorgio Roifer, bought the Baerental (Bear Valley) estate for its vast expanse of pine forests.

A year after he died in Italy in 1938, his widow, Matilde, moved the family to Palestine and left the property in the care of her brother-in-law, Naftoli Emdine.

Emdine decided in 1941 to sell the land located in the south Austrian province of Carinthia, Rofe said.

There were already pressures on Jews to sell land, and the deal was done only months before a clause in a law was passed requiring the sale of Jewish property to non-Jews in all Nazi-occupied areas.

``My uncle had been deprived of Italian citizenship, he didn’t have a passport even,″ Rofe, 67, told The Associated Press from his Jerusalem office at Hebrew University on Thursday. ``He was really scared. ... It was sold under duress.″

Emdine sold the land to Josef Webhofer, Haider’s great-uncle, for what Merhav said was 1 percent of its worth at the time. She does not know the precise amount.

It ``wasn’t moral″ that Webhofer agreed to take the land when her family could not have kept it, Merhav said.

In addition, Emdine might not even have had the authority to release the land. Matilde Roifer signed over power of attorney to Emdine for only six months, but he sold the property two years later, Merhav said.

It is the power-of-attorney papers that Merhav and her son, Zvi, hope will help prove their case, that the property known for its timber, sawmill and hunting was effectively stolen from them.

``On the other side of the power of attorney papers, the authorities wrote that it had no value but they accept it because it was used in a sale to an Aryan,″ Merhav said by phone from her home in Haifa.

Rofe has a copy of the document he obtained through Austrian journalists.

The Merhavs have yet to take any legal action, but Rofe thinks a suit is futile. In a legal battle in 1952 to win back the estate, Matilde Roifer accepted $120,000 compensation in an out-of-court settlement.

``I doubt if there is any legal ground for action,″ Rofe said.

Rofe, a Hebrew Bible professor, doesn’t remember the land that he may have visited only once at the age of three. But he remembers growing up thinking that his family had the land until, when he was 13 in 1945, they learned the truth.

``I imagined that I would go there someday,″ Rofe said. ``I have never visited.″

Merhav remembers a visit to the property when she was 7.

``I remember thick forests and small houses near a river,″ Merhav said. ``It was beautiful.″

The unease over Haider is shared by Israeli athletes who are in Vienna this week to compete in the European Figure Skating Championships.

``We were a bit afraid to come,″ said Line Haddad, an Israeli pairs skater.

``We were worried it could become dangerous like at the Olympics, when the Israeli team was killed there,″ said Haddad, referring to the slayings of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at Munich in 1972.

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