Monday, December 28, 2015

Villa Moeller in Vienna: Solving a Historical Puzzle

Sometimes our work in the ISA doesn't concern national issues or peace treaties, but it is no less fascinating for that. Many requests to us for documents relate to land ownership and property transfers, which are of great importance to the people concerned. Here we tell how long forgotten files helped to solve a historical puzzle about a house owned by the state of Israel in Vienna.

At the beginning of October we were approached by Ms. Talya Lador-Fresher, who was about to take up her post as Israel's ambassador to Austria. She wanted information about the early years of Israel's relations with Austria, established on consular level in 1949 while the country was still under Allied occupation. For some reason she was particularly interested in the residence of the Israeli representative in Vienna. When we met, she explained that she had heard in the ministry that the house was given to the state by Hans Moeller, who owned it before it was confiscated by the Nazis.  Moeller belonged to a family of Jewish industrialists from Bohemia which founded the famous ATA textile firm near Haifa. He tried to get the building returned after the war, but the municipality of Vienna demanded a large sum in unpaid back taxes….In frustration, he decided to give the house to the state and let the Foreign Ministry deal with it. Talya was looking for proof of the story.

Hans Moeller in his office at ATA,  1962. Photograph:Wikipedia
One of the people who told her about the building was the ex-ambassador to Vienna, Mr. Yoel Sher, who used to work at the ISA. He told us that he had tried to find evidence here whether the Israeli government actually paid the taxes, but without success. This was another question we wanted to answer. 

Villa Moeller in Vienna. Photograph: Wikipedia
A quick check on the Internet revealed that the house, known as Villa Moeller, is well known in the history of architecture. It was designed by the important Modernist architect Adolf Loos in 1928, according to his theory of Raumplan. Loos said in 1930: "My architecture is not conceived in plans, but in spaces (cubes). I do not design floor plans, facades, sections. I design spaces. For me, there is no ground floor, first floor, etc. ... For me, there are only contiguous, continual spaces, rooms, anterooms, terraces, etc. Storeys merge and spaces relate to each other." The exterior, a white cubic façade, displays Loos' theory in his 1908 essay, "Ornament and Crime", in which he criticized decorated surfaces. He wanted to distinguish between the outside, where the view could be seen by the public eye, and the inside, the private spaces of those who lived there. In contrast to the simple exterior, the interior was decorated with comfortable furniture and marble and wood surfaces.
The interior of Villa Moeller today. Photograph: Talya Lador-Fresher
 From our experts on the Archives catalogue and on Foreign Ministry documents we learned that every embassy or legation abroad has a file on legal matters. Sure enough, in a file marked "State property abroad: Vienna"(MFA 1836/17) we found a note from December 1950 stating that the house was given to the state by Hans Moeller, the owner (at that time manager) of the ATA firm. The state had paid 45,000 schillings, a good deal of money at that time, to clear outstanding debts. So it seems that the back taxes were paid! According to another document, from September 1954,  the villa consists of 13 living rooms, with bathrooms, store rooms and balconies. The file also includes a copy of the Austrian land register. 

The house was in a poor state and needed extensive refitting. The first Israeli consul in Vienna was Dr. Kurt Daniel Lewin and, according to his successor, Arye Eshel, he saw his appointment as temporary and did little to deal with the problem. On his arrival , Eshel wrote a long letter to the Foreign Ministry (File MFA 2515/4) describing the situation. In his words, the building was a "magnificent shell with an interior which resembled a room in a  kibbutz hut". The large garden was a field of thistles, and the staff quarters had been occupied since 1945 by the family of a Viennese Communist  persecuted by the Nazis. Eshel warned that even after renovation upkeep of the house would be very expensive, and added wistfully that a furnished 4 room apartment would cost no more than 2,000 schillings per month, especially as the "future of the country and the city are lost in the mist." Despite the austerity in force in Israel in 1950, the Ministry decided on the renovations.
 The garden of Villa Moeller today. Photograph: Talya Lador-Fresher
Post war Vienna, which was divided into Soviet and Western zones, was a centre of espionage and intrigue. Alongside the more mundane subjects of restitution of Jewish property and commercial relations with Austria, the Israeli consulate also dealt with ties with Eastern Europe and efforts to help Jews from these countries get to Israel, sometimes using smugglers and black marketeers  reminiscent of  the characters in the famous film The Third Man, which was recently re-released.

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