53 Years Later, Lawsuit Is Filed on Behalf of Hitler's Slave Labor
FRANKFURT, Aug. 31--Encouraged by their success in persuading Swiss banks to repay victims of the Holocaust, lawyers in the United States and Germany are suing Germany's biggest industrial companies on behalf of workers forced into slave labor during Hitler's regime.
The class-action suit, filed on Sunday in New York, could turn out to amount to billions of dollars being paid by companies like DaimlerBenz, Volkswagen, BMW and Siemens.
It is the biggest attempt yet to force companies entangled in the business of Nazi Germany to pay victims 50 years after the war. It comes just a month after three of Switzerland's biggest banks agreed to pay a total of $1.25 billion to settle a similar lawsuit over assets belonging to Holocaust victims that the banks never returned.
Some companies cited in the suit have long admitted that they used slave laborers from countries like Poland and Hungary, though they insisted that they were forced to do so by the Third Reich.
Under the threat of lawsuits and damaging publicity over the issue, several have said they are willing to put money into a new fund for compensating survivors.
Volkswagen, which had been threatened with a separate lawsuit, formally announced that it would set up a victims' fund but would not decide details until September.
Several European insurance companies recently agreed that an international commission could determine the details of compensation to Holocaust victims whose insurance policies were never paid off. The Assicurazioni Generali insurance company of Italy agreed this week to pay $100 million to compensate Holocaust victims.
The newest lawsuit was brought by the same lawyers who handled the Swiss banking and insurance cases, led by Edward Fagan in New York and Michael Witti in Munich. Even before today, the lawyers had begun taking fresh aim at German companies. They have filed suits against the country's biggest banks, Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank, as well as another one against the big chemical company Degussa.
Though the suit does not demand a specific amount of compensation, lawyers have said they will demand at least $75,000 for each of the surviving victims, wherever they are living. German companies are believed to have pressed more than eight million people into slave labor, and it is not clear how many are still alive. "We are not talking about recovering lost salaries," Mr. Witti said in an interview today. "We are talking about recovering the profit that was made out of the work of these people."
Mr. Witti said the suit has standing in an American court because the companies cited in the suit all do business in the United States.
Until recently, almost all the legal battles over compensation for Holocaust victims have been over debts owed by Swiss banks as a result of their wartime services for the German Government. Jewish groups, seizing on leads from recently opened archives, charged that the Swiss banks had held onto vast sums that were deposited by Jewish victims or plundered by the Nazi regime and deposited in Switzerland to finance the war effort.
The new suits focusing on German companies attempt to reopen issues that had seemed settled long ago. The German Government has paid $60 billion or more to victims as well as compensation in the form of help for Israel. But the lawyers argue that the slave laborers who were forced to work on farms as well as in factories that made tanks, guns and poisonous gas, were never compensated for the wealth they helped generate. "The compensation so far has only covered certain kinds of damages, like the damage to health, the loss of freedom or lost jewelry," said Mr. Witti. "It never covered slave labor."
Volkswagen had hoped to extract itself from such a confrontation less than two months ago, when it announced, after discussions with advocates for Holocaust victims, that it would voluntarily set up a fund of its own. The company continues to argue that it bears no legal responsibility, but is willing to acknowledge its moral obligations.
That peace offering did nothing to keep Volkswagen out of the new complaint.