With a Committed Young Team
In 1943 when I was ten years old, my mother sent me to stay with a farming family she knew in Lower Austria in order to escape the food shortages in Vienna and spend a few weeks eating plain but healthy food. While I was there, I met a Ukrainian boy who was only three years older than me. At the tender age of 13, he had been deported to the territory of the present-day Republic of Austria to carry out forced labor. Although we could barely communicate with him, we could see that by nature he was a cheerful young man. However, every now and again, he was overcome by melancholy and sadness—probably because he could not understand why he had been carried off from his home and his family to a strange and foreign country although still a child.
The young Ukrainian worked hard on the farm, and given the lack of able-bodied men, most of whom had been conscripted into the armed forces, made an important contribution to maintaining food production during the war, which in many areas would have collapsed without the millions of men and women coerced by the Nazi system of forced labor.
Of course at the time, I could have no idea that after retiring from the Austrian foreign service, I would spend five years dealing with issues related to forced laborers in my capacity as Secretary General of the Austrian Reconciliation Fund. It was only natural that as Secretary General of the Austrian Reconciliation Fund I also remembered the young Ukrainian forced laborer who had been deported to Austria from Ukraine at just 13 years of age. I asked myself whether his name had been submitted to our Fund by the Ukrainian partner organization to receive voluntary symbolic compensation for his forced labor. My investigations showed that this was the case, and we were both delighted when, after more than sixty years, I was reunited with my forced-laborer friend (for we had indeed got on very well and occasionally played soccer together) in Lviv in April 2005, where, with the help of an interpreter, we reminisced about the time we had spent together on the Lower Austrian farm.
As the Secretary General of the Austrian Reconciliation Fund, I was repeatedly asked during my lectures and in discussions why forced laborers who had worked in the agricultural sector also received financial compensation, albeit a symbolic amount, since this group of forced laborers had fared considerably better than some of their fellow countrymen in their home countries. Due to my childhood experiences with the young Ukrainian mentioned above, it was easy for me to rebut such arguments with reference to the enormously important contribution they had made in maintaining the food supply for the domestic population, and also because of the youth of many of those forced laborers who had been deported.
The fact that forced laborers from the agricultural sector were also included in the Austrian Reconciliation Fund's compensation scheme generated a positive response from the international community, which very much appreciated that the Reconciliation Fund had been created and so generously and voluntarily endowed.
After my formal appointment by the Board of Trustees as Secretary General of the Austrian Reconciliation Fund, I set about finding suitable office premises and recruiting the necessary personnel. I was surprised that within a fairly short period of time I was able to recruit highly competent, committed men and women with the necessary language skills and suitable personalities for the task ahead, and who subsequently got on wonderfully with each other. With their help, it was possible to carry out the difficult and complex task of tracking down forced laborers from 61 countries—and now spread throughout the world—who fell within the remit of the Reconciliation Fund, and then transferring to them the compensation payments which they had been awarded. It was a pleasure to work with this committed young team that responded so willingly to all the ideas that were put forward when we defined our working procedures. Team members also repeatedly made new suggestions of their own, which were then adopted in practice. Just how successful we were at breaking completely new ground can be seen from the fact that while verifying applications from former slave laborers from the former Soviet Union, we were even able to study the documents of the Soviet secret service, which had subjected each returning forced laborer to detailed interrogations by a so-called filtration committee.
The staff at the Austrian Reconciliation Fund worked even more zealously as thousands of former forced laborers made clear how much they appreciated the fact that the Reconciliation Fund recognized them for the first time as victims of the National Socialist regime—recognition that in many cases had been denied them in their own countries. For many thousands of forced laborers living in Eastern Europe, the financial payment made by the Austrian Reconciliation Fund also brought about a crucial improvement in their quality of life, for example by enabling them to buy expensive medicines and medical equipment and other necessities.
The work of the Austrian Reconciliation Fund, which by and large was extremely satisfying and much appreciated both in Austria and abroad, and which was of great national political significance, would not have been possible without the commitment of all those working for the Fund.
Now that the Fund has completed its work, we can say without false modesty that the endowment of the Austrian Reconciliation Fund provided by the Austrian taxpayers was surely a good investment with regard to promoting international understanding and harmonious international relationships. It has already generated positive results and will continue to do so in the future.
Ambassador Dr. Richard Wotava,
Secretary General of the
Austrian Reconciliation Fund