The Guardian, Wednesday 9 February 2000
Jörg Haider, the far-right giant of Austrian politics, is the proud owner of a £10m country estate. But a Jewish professor is claiming the land was swindled from his family by the Nazis. Matthew Kalman reports
When Giorgio Roifer first set his eyes on the beautiful forest of Barental near Klagenfurt in the southern Austrian Tyrol, he thought he had found the perfect estate to expand his burgeoning timber business. The Russian-born Jewish entrepreneur, who had become a naturalised Italian, lived with his wife and three children in Pisa. They had servants, horses and two cars. He had timber and sawmill interests all over Italy and southern Austria, and when he acquired the 3,700-acre Barental estate at the age of 37, it seemed the ideal addition to his growing empire.
But his wife and children were destined never to see Barental. Less than a year after Roifer bought the estate in 1937, Hitler became the ruler of Austria under the Anschluss. When Roifer visited Barental in 1938, he found a sign on the door of the Moser Hotel where he used to stay in Klagenfurt. It said: "Dogs and Jews are not welcome."
The Nazis embarked on a ruthless policy of Aryanisation - forcing Jews to sell their property and leave the country. Roifer died that year, and soon after the land was sold to a man called Josef Webhofer, who left it to his son Wilhelm.
Today, it belongs to Jörg Haider, leader of the far-right Austrian Freedom party, who received it as a gift in 1986 from Webhofer, his great-uncle. Worth about £10m, the hunting, fishing, shooting and wood-logging estate is the basis of the vast fortune that has made Haider one of the wealthiest men in Austria. The original sale was, however, illegal. If Haider's family had not deceived Roifer's widow years after the war, the estate would still belong to her family.
Roifer's son, Alexander, who many believe is the rightful heir to Barental, lives today in a modest apartment in a middle-class Jerusalem suburb called French Hill, far removed from the grandeur of Pisa or the beauty of Barental. White-haired, bespectacled, a professor of Bible studies at the nearby Hebrew university, he seems bemused by the sudden interest in his family history and is reluctant to talk about Haider.
He tells the story of the estate in measured tones, despite the disturbing memories it stirs. Roifer says his mother, who died in 1995, was forced to sell the estate for a fraction of its real value, and never discovered that she had been tricked into giving it up until it was too late. "I am certainly not happy about what happened, but I do not wake up every morning angry about it," he says. "A man builds his life and fortunately I have found other things to keep me busy and interested. Of course I am sorry that the Roifer forest is now the Haider forest.
"The property was sold in October 1940 under duress. In the course of the sale an illegal act was committed, but the authorities in Karenten induced the sale in order to Aryanise the land. If you ask me, do we have a legal claim, the answer is no. If you ask if I think what has happened was morally right, I think it stinks.
"The acquisition was made in several stages and was completed in 1937. On August 26 1938 my father died of cancer."
Roifer was 38. His young widow, Matilde, and children Noemi, 10, Josef, 8 and Alexander, 6, fled to Palestine to escape the Nazis.
"In October 1939, we left Italy for Israel. My father, who was a Zionist, told my mother on his deathbed to take the family to Israel. It was almost impossible to get visas, but my mother wrote a letter which eventually got to [Israeli statesman] David Ben-Gurion, who made sure we got a visa.
"My uncle in Italy decided to sell the forest. There was all sorts of virulent anti-semitic propaganda in the press. He was under a great deal of psychological and physical duress. If we had been Austrian citizens and therefore citizens of the expanded German Reich, it would have been very simple. They would have said, 'Here are 10 Reichmarks, the forest is now ours.' But we were Italians and the Italian government would not allow that to happen."
Instead of the estate being confiscated, the family were able to sell it, but the price of 300,000 Reichsmarks - about £750,000 at today's prices - was only about one-tenth of the actual value of the property.
"The buyer was Josef Webhofer from Brunich in Southern Tyrol," says Roifer. "Hitler and Mussolini had signed an agreement about the region where he lived, a German-speaking area of Italy. The Germans living in Tyrol could either stay in Italy and become Italians, changing their names and losing the autonomy they enjoyed, or they could emigrate to the Third Reich. Josef Webhofer bought this land in order to have some stake inside the Third Reich and move there."
Matilde had not wanted to sell the estate and didn't even know of the sale until her brother-in-law wrote to her at the end of the war. Worse was to come. When the money finally reached Italy, it was frozen until after the war, by which time inflation had reduced its value to almost nothing.
In 1953, Roifer's mother went back to Austria to try to get a fairer sum from Webhofer. To their surprise, he agreed to pay another $100,000. "When she received that money, my mother signed a paper foregoing all future claims," says Roifer. "The indemnity was given under restrictive conditions. We were not permitted access to the documentation in the land registry office in Klagenfurt."
It was only years later that the family discovered why Webhofer had insisted on that condition and why he had been so willing to pay the extra cash. In 1989 papers were discovered at the land registry office in Klagenfurt which amazed the Roifers.
"The document said that the power of attorney granted by my mother, Matilde Roifer Galichi, to her brother-in-law, Dr Naphtoli Emdin, was not valid. But because it was desirable to Aryanise the land, the local officials decided to approve the sale anyway. In other words, there was no sale. Until 1953 the forest was legally ours. That is why Webhofer agreed to pay, because he knew that if this became known, the deal would be void."