Slaves for Nazis hope for German compensation

December 17, 1990|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- For the first time in 45 years Rutha Borenstein has begun to think that there might be a chance for some justice after all.

And as she tells her story of being a forced laborer in Nazi Germany, she also starts to get angry -- a new feeling for the 72-year-old retiree. Up until now she had been resigned to the fact that no German government had made amends to the 8 million to 10 million people who slaved under sometimes unimaginable conditions for German industry and government during World War II.

"I worked. I stood for hours, my bare feet in cold water, and lifted stones up onto trucks. We worked without food or drink, in the clothing we were given in Auschwitz, without underwear or shoes, our hair shorn, and kicked around by the SS. Why couldn't we have received something? Aren't they ashamed?" Mrs. Borenstein said in her Berlin apartment.

Her new assertiveness comes from having taken action. Mrs. Borenstein and Lila Nemes of Tel Aviv have filed suit against the Finance Ministry of newly unified Germany as the legal heir to Hitler's Third Reich.

Each asks for the equivalent of $10,000 for work done between August 1944 and April 1945, when they were deported to the north German city of Bremen along with 800 other women from Poland and Hungary to haul away rubble from Allied bombing raids and to build emergency housing.

Mrs. Borenstein's case is of interest to more than just the 350 survivors of those 800 women. In all, about 3 million survivors have waited 45 years for an apology and some sort of amends. And like Mrs. Borenstein, many believe that the political situation in the newly united Germany will work to their favor.

Although some German political parties have attempted to provide forced laborers compensation in the past, successive governments in West and East Germany have resisted. The two German states avoided direct responsibility for Nazi Germany's use of slaves, pleading that the economic burden of such reparations would be too much for their economies.

Now, however, with Germany unified, fully sovereign and its economy the third-strongest in the world, survivors like Mrs. Borenstein feel they have a better chance than ever to receive compensation.

Until now, most suits by forced laborers were rejected by German courts, citing the 1953 London Debt Agreement. The agreement was based on the view that reparations to so many victims would be such a great burden that payment would have to wait until there was a final decision over how to deal with current Germany's responsibility for Nazi Germany's acts. This was widely interpreted to mean until a peace treaty was signed with Germany.

With Germany now unified and a peace treaty in effect if not actually signed with its neighbors, the London Debt Agreement has lost much of its force, according to Alfred Hausser, spokesman for the Interest Group of Former Forced Laborers.

There are signs that the German parliament, the Bundestag, may decide to make amends with all forced laborers, which could settle Mrs. Borenstein's case as well.

Although the government rejected a call by the Social Democratic Party last month to establish a foundation to help forced laborers, it did agree to establish a working group to look into the feasibility of a fund for forced laborers that would be financed by the government and the companies, such as Volkswagen, Daimler-Benz, BMW, Krupp, Siemens and IG Farben, that made extensive use of slave labor.

Until now, West Germany has paid out $60 billion in reparations, but about 85 to 90 percent has gone to people living in Germany or in former German territory. About $2.3 billion has gone to Israel and the Jewish Claims Conference and another $660 million to victims in 12 West European countries. East Germany paid virtually nothing, except for a special pension to political resistance fighters.

None of this money, however, was earmarked for the millions of surviving forced laborers, such as Mrs. Borenstein. Several German companies, such as Daimler-Benz, have paid money to welfare organizations that look after former forced laborers, but none has attempted to pay them an actual salary for the time spent in their factories.

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