Redress sought in Nazi-era labor

U.S. group negotiates with German firms

August 23, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,STAFF SUN NATIONAL

It has been more than 50 years since a 15-year-old Viennese Jew named Siegfried Buchwalter was pressed into Nazi slave labor, since he toiled in a German munitions factory on a starvation diet, since he was beaten with rifle butts and bullwhips, since he dressed his festering wounds and broken ribs with greasy rags stolen from the plant's machinery.

But sitting in the dimly lighted living room of his modest Baltimore duplex, Buchwalter fumes and rages as if it were yesterday, consumed with the anguish of a forgotten victim still seeking justice.

It is ostensibly for Buchwalter and hundreds of thousands of survivors like him that a delegation of American lawyers, government officials and Jewish leaders will embark for Bonn tomorrow for a critical round of negotiations with the German corporate giants that grew fat and wealthy during World War II on slave labor. From those negotiations, the American and Jewish officials hope to produce financial compensation for thousands of surviving slave laborers.

A global settlement of roughly 30 class-action lawsuits against German companies now appears within reach. Negotiators have set a Sept. 1 deadline for an agreement in principle and a final deadline of New Year's Eve.

"We dare not fail," warned Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart E. Eizenstat, the leader of the U.S. delegation. "There's just too much at stake."

Those stakes include tens of billions of dollars in compensation, potentially bruised diplomatic relations, battered corporate earnings and fears among some in the Jewish community that the final chapter of the Holocaust saga could be recorded as a trivializing and stereotyped quest for cash.

"I don't want the last sound bite on the Holocaust this century to be Jews and their gold, Jews and their money," said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

At 73, Buchwalter has no use for such philosophical arguments and hand-wringing. Buchwalter says he simply wants justice.

"I didn't make the choice that I should go to Buchenwald," Buchwalter said. "I didn't make the choice that I should go to a concentration camp. I didn't make the choice to be beaten. Somebody should pay."

As the German army swept through Europe during World War II, hundreds of thousands of civilians were deported from their homes in occupied countries to toil for the Nazi war effort. Jews were herded into ghettos and concentration camps, literally to be worked to death.

The non-Jewish forced laborers, by contrast, were seen as assets to the Third Reich, a virtually no-cost labor force to be exploited by German industry with the household names of Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler-Benz.

These slave and forced laborers are the ones now seeking redress. Though many of the negotiators and lawyers are Jewish, the vast majority of the plaintiffs are not.

Since World War II, the German government has paid -- to the tune of $60 billion in war reparations and aid, helping the Jewish state of Israel establish an economic base and supplementing the incomes of 170,000 concentration camp survivors and their heirs throughout the world.

A further $980 million has been given to reconciliation foundations in Poland, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Czech Republic to compensate forced laborers. And German companies have paid slave workers an additional $64 million.

But many thousands have received nothing in recompense. In 1996, class-action lawyers, armed with newly declassified documents from U.S. and Eastern European archives, took matters into their own hands, on behalf of victims who lost personal property, never received life insurance payments and received no payment for forced labor.

First, the lawyers filed a flood of lawsuits against Swiss banks that sheltered looted Nazi assets. Those suits yielded a $1.25 billion settlement late last year.

Then, suits were filed against French, German and Austrian

banks, then European insurance companies.

But the mother lode was still to come. German corporations that brutalized a vast slave-labor force during World War II have very deep pockets.

The first suits on behalf of slave and forced laborers were filed in March of last year. Four months later, Volkswagen -- one of the worst World War II offenders -- responded with a $12 million fund to compensate 2,400 surviving slave laborers, about $5,000 each.

Then on June 10, more than a dozen large German corporations, including DaimlerChrysler, Volkswagen and BMW, announced that they would establish a fund for "Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future," if all pending lawsuits were dropped and some kind of future legal immunity could be established. Though they refused to put a price tag on their offer, the sum was widely reported to be $1.7 billion.

The number of companies that have signed on totals 16 and would rise "exponentially," Eizenstat suggested, if an agreement could be reached to shield them from future lawsuits.

Lawyers and Jewish groups denounced the offer as inadequate, or worse.

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