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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sudeten Exiles Fight for Rights

KLEINSCHWEINBARTH, Austria -- Hildegard Nuss was less than 10 when she was forced to leave her home, but she says time hasn't diminished the empty feeling inside of her.

She was among 3 million ethnic Germans who were expelled from what was then Czechoslovakia. Now, 57 years later, some of those still alive want their property back and their honor restored, posing an awkward problem for a continent striving to heal the wounds of World War II and unite into a borderless Europe.

In 1938, when Hitler seized Czechoslovakia, many in its German-speaking Sudetenland region welcomed the Nazis as liberators. Just seven years later, with the Nazis defeated, they were declared enemies of the Czech and Slovak peoples, exiled and their property confiscated.

Nuss settled in Austria but says she has never recovered from the trauma. "I feel like a tree that has had its roots chopped off," she says.

She and many other Sudeten Germans are fighting to have the decrees nullified. The battle has turned fiercer as the Czech Republic -- which split peacefully from Slovakia in 1993 -- edges closer to its goal of joining the European Union.

Sudeten Germans and Austria's right-wing Freedom Party say the Czech Republic should not be allowed into the EU unless it nullifies the decrees. Otherwise, say exiles such as Johann Ludwig, the 15-nation union would be morally weakened. Ludwig, 78, fears the issue will be forgotten once the country joins the EU. In fact, EU officials have already said the issue will not hinder the admission of the Czech Republic.

The rumblings are coming not just from Austria, but from Germany, where most of the Sudeten Germans were resettled. Bavarian governor Edmund Stoiber, the conservative candidate for chancellor in September elections, has called the decrees "intolerable for the European Union."

But there seems to be little sympathy for the Sudeten argument among Czechs, for whom the Sudetenland evokes memories of their country being dismembered to appease Hitler and then swallowed up by the Third Reich.

In January, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman referred to the Sudeten Germans of the 1930s as "traitors" and "Hitler's fifth column," prompting Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der to call off a planned visit to Prague. While EU officials anxiously begged all sides to bury the past, the Czech parliament's lower chamber voted unanimously to keep the banishment decrees in effect.

Czech politicians argue that all compensation issues were settled after World War II, and that annulling the decrees would expose them to new and costly restitution claims.

"Why should a crime not be atoned for?" said Gerhard Zeihsel, president of the Austrian chapter of the Sudetendeutsche Landsmannschaft, a group fighting for the rights of those expelled.

The exiles have kept in close touch over the years, meeting at monuments they built to keep the memories alive.

The Austrian chapter meets annually on a mountain near the village of Kleinschweinbarth, 70 kilometers north of Vienna and just south of the Czech border. The mountain overlooks the hills and villages that Sudeten Germans once called home.

Erhard Frey, expelled when he was 9, looked longingly across the border at lush fields cradling the land that housed his grandparents' farm.

Now 66, Frey lives in Vienna, owns a vegetable cannery and acknowledges he has done better in Austria than he would have in Czechoslovakia.

"I would have never wanted to live in communist Czechoslovakia," he said. "But I still want the land back. We want to own the land. What we will do with it is a separate issue, but we have the right to own it, or to be refunded."