Posted on Thu, Nov. 13, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Trying to reclaim a former life

Mercury News
 

Everything Chris and Rich Andrews had ever known about themselves changed two years ago.

The brothers survived a catch-as-catch-can childhood in Palo Alto, living with friends after 14-year-old Chris found their mother dead from a medication overdose. Chris grew up to make his living in high tech; his brother became a Sacramento-area tennis pro.

Then, in 2001, the brothers received a letter from a German bank that said they were heirs to a mansion in the heart of Vienna, worth nearly $500,000 and taken from their mother's very wealthy Jewish cousin by the Nazis. In 1958, the Austrian government leased it in perpetuity to the United States government.

With that one page of text, the Andrews brothers began a new life: Not only are they of Jewish heritage, but they come from two distinguished Austrian merchant families whose factories produced matches and sugar, enough to finance luxuries like a collection of museum-quality porcelain worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Today, the Andrewses have joined thousands of other Austrian families and their descendants trying to negotiate a tangled pile of papers and politics to regain property taken by force during World War II.

``It's forced both of us to revisit some painful experiences,'' said Rich Andrews, soon to mark his 51st birthday. And, he said, ``it's been a tremendous healing process.''

CBS's ``60 Minutes II'' told their story Wednesday night, including an emotional retracing of the brothers' childhood in the leafy lanes of Palo Alto's College Terrace neighborhood.

For most of their lives, the Andrews brothers knew virtually nothing about their family. Their mother, Betty, moved to Palo Alto after divorcing their father. She was estranged from her relatives and never talked about her past. Obviously well educated and cultured, she spoke three languages. She worked as a lab technician at Stanford University. She did the best she could to let her boys know they were loved.

But she struggled with schizophrenia, sometimes in a very public way. When she was hospitalized, neighbors brought the boys to their homes. They did so again after she died.

The brothers moved away from their childhoods as fast as they could. Rich, a nationally ranked player, focused on tennis and won a scholarship to the University of Washington. Chris, who lives in Los Altos, threw himself into the fast-evolving world of technology, plunging into early CD-ROM development, hardware marketing and business consulting.

The letter and the search for information that followed took them back as adults to feelings that were too hard to bear as teenagers. For the first time in 20 years, Rich said, he visited his mother's grave in Alta Mesa Cemetery in Palo Alto and talked with his brother about their mother's death.

Chris Andrews, 47, has become the more visible bulldog, writing lengthy letters to Austrian and American government officials, asking pointed questions about the fairness of the restitution process and the history of the properties. He's made many trips to Austria, hunting down papers, talking to relatives he never knew he had.

It's not about the money, the brothers say, although they have filed more than 20 claims on 10 other family properties, five liquidated businesses and a life insurance policy that might add up to millions for the brothers, appraisers tell them. The U.S. government lease on the mansion is just $2,500 monthly and the brothers might only be entitled to 1/32 of that money -- times 45 years since the lease was signed. The building is priceless in value to the brothers. They have learned it was their mother's birthplace.

There are other distant members of their mother's family who are claimants, too, and ways in which the Austrian government might decide ``to cut it back and scale it down,'' said Rich Andrews.

The process into which the Andrewses have been taken is complex, said Whittier College law Professor Michael Bayzler, author of ``Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America's Courts.''

``It involves a number of sophisticated laws and rules -- specific rules under Austrian law, under U.S. law and under international law. In addition to that, because we are talking about the Holocaust and World War II, it's an area that is very sensitive and very emotional.''

Before escaping with their daughter to America sometime after 1938, when Hitler claimed Austria, Betty Andrews' parents were among 170,000 Jews living in Vienna.

That they were practicing Christians did not matter. Under the new rules, anyone with any Jewish ancestry four generations back was Jewish and their property subject to confiscation.

``We simply don't know as yet which way their claim will go,'' said Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, Austrian consul general in Los Angeles, of the brothers' case. ``But we are operating in an environment of Austrian politics that is trying to rectify the injustices that have been committed.''

Some 17,000 claims for property have been filed, Launsky-Tieffenthal said. He doesn't know when the Andrewses' might be decided.

Chris Andrews believes it might be as soon as within a month. ``I think, `What's this all about?,' '' he said. ``It's about people who can't speak for themselves because they are dead or very old or struggling to overcome something.''

One day, he and his brother might write a book, ``but it has to be for the right reason at the right time.'' He has talked to a Hollywood manager.

Rich Andrews became a Catholic when he got married, and has two sons -- Richard, 15, and Nicholas, 13. He and his wife, Robin, plan to take the boys for their first trip to Vienna this summer.

Contact S.L. Wykes at swykes @mercurynews.com or (650) 688-7599. Fax (650) 688-7555.