Negotiations on compensating Nazi-era slave laborers adjourn

German corporations, U.S. lawyers disagree on number still alive

August 27, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- High-level talks over compensation for victims of Nazi-era slave labor adjourned yesterday in Bonn, with German corporations and U.S. lawyers still far apart on the most fundamental question: How many of the victims are still alive?

Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart E. Eizenstat, the U.S. mediator in the talks, said negotiations would resume Oct. 6 in Washington. Just last week, Eizenstat had said he hoped to reach at least an agreement in principle by Sept. 1 to settle the slave labor claims.

Though the pace has been slower than expected, Eizenstat insisted that all sides are eager to reach a settlement quickly, aware that an estimated 10 percent of the survivors who were pressed into slave or forced labor during World War II are dying each year.

"There is a great feeling of the weight of history here, and the weight of the biological clock," he said. "We all know we're working against time."

Responsibility accepted

German corporations acknowledge a responsibility to compensate hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans whom they exploited during World War II. But the shape of a final agreement between the companies and the class-action lawyers that are suing them remains elusive.

At the core of the dispute is how many of the roughly 10 million Nazi-era laborers remain alive, and how much money each of them is entitled to.

The German government, as well as at least 16 German companies that used slave labor, have agreed to set up a compensation fund. Lawyers for the survivors have conceded that those who are compensated by the fund should waive their right to sue for further damages.

But after three days of negotiations, the sides remain far apart on the numbers. Michael Hausfeld, a Washington-based class-action lawyer for the survivors, angered negotiators on all sides by producing a report that contends there are 2.3 million survivors.

In contrast, Lutz Niethammer, a professor at the European University in Italy and an expert in the study of Nazi-era slave labor, told negotiators that he believed the survivors actually number around 1.5 million.

$4 billion difference

The difference of 800,000 is critical. The survivors' lawyers have suggested that the German corporations must spend $11 billion to settle the claims, or about $5,000 for each of 2.3 million survivors. By the lawyers' calculations, the additional 800,000 survivors would represent $4 billion more.

"The numbers vary wildly," said Alissa Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the Jewish Claims Conference, which administers many of the existing reparations programs and is a negotiator in the slave labor talks on the side of the roughly 200,000 Jews who are among the surviving slave laborers.

Kaplan said Hausfeld's numbers had "introduced a great amount of frustration" to the talks. But Hausfeld was hardly apologetic.

"The Germans are complaining that there are too many living survivors," he said. "Well, whose fault is that? Why should the survivors be punished for still being alive? That's a sick, sick notion."

Earlier this year, German corporate chieftains had vowed to complete a reparations agreement by Sept. 1, the 60th anniversary of the start of World War II. But that has proved daunting.

More than 90 representatives from eight countries, 16 corporations and numerous Jewish groups and law firms had crowded around an immense table at the Foreign Ministry building in Bonn this week, hoping for a breakthrough that never came.

One negotiator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. lawyers might have poisoned the atmosphere by producing high numbers in hopes of negotiating downward to a more realistic level. Such tactics may work in legal settlement conferences, the negotiator said, but it is not how diplomats conduct sensitive talks. The U.S. lawyers' stance not only angered the corporations but also incensed the German and U.S. diplomats and the Jewish groups that are trying to settle quickly.

"This isn't like negotiating a tobacco settlement," the participant fumed.

After the talks adjourned, Eizenstat insisted that "given the magnitude of what we're dealing with, the mood was remarkably positive."

But he, too, showed signs of wear, saying that the lawyers were badly divided in their demands and hinting that he agreed more with Niethammer's lower estimates of the number of survivors than with Hausfeld's higher ones.

More talk on numbers

Next Friday, Hausfeld and representatives of Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Czech Republic, along with U.S. and German negotiators, plan to meet with Niethammer in Florence, Italy, to agree on the number of survivors.

Sixteen chief executives from such German companies as Volkswagen, Siemans and DaimlerChrylser plan to meet with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on Sept. 6 to advance the settlement talks. The next round will resume in early October.

"I'm totally confident this could be done," Hausfeld said. "It's a question of whether the Germans are too arrogant or too small-minded to do it."

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