Ruling issued in Holocaust-tied case

Reparations action has no place in Md. courts, Judge Dudley decides

August 13, 2002|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

A family fight over German war reparations paid out a half-century after the Holocaust has no place in the Maryland court system, a Howard County Circuit Court judge has ruled.

Because German authorities have determined that Columbia resident Gunther Gottfeld is the rightful heir to the family business, which was sold at a loss while the Nazis were in power, his cousin, Lia Miller, "has no viable legal claims [to the money] cognizable in a court in Maryland," Judge James B. Dudley wrote late last week.

"German courts have fully and finally adjudicated who is rightfully entitled to restitution and that finding cannot be disturbed by this court," Dudley wrote in his seven-page decision granting the defense a summary judgment - a decision made based on facts submitted before trial.

Yesterday, Gottfeld's lawyer, George Huber, said that Dudley's ruling "exonerates" Gottfeld and his wife, Ann, from allegations that they were fraudulently awarded the money - an amount lawyers on both sides said was hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"My client is very happy," Huber said. "It was a sensitive, emotional subject to him, and he's very glad that it's over."

Miller's lawyer, Glenn Etelson, said he had not seen the ruling and could not comment on it. Before the ruling, both sides had discussed "holding off" the Maryland case to "investigate" previous German court rulings.

"The question is whether the German agency handled it appropriately," he said.

Miller of Owings Mills sued the Gottfelds this year, claiming that the couple used deceit to convince German authorities that Gunther Gottfeld was the only heir worthy of money paid to compensate for the family's store in Furstenwalde, Germany.

But Gottfeld said in court papers that he claimed only to be the sole heir of his father, Willi Gottfeld, who died in 1969. Willi Gottfeld and Miller's grandfather, Karl Gottfeld, were brothers.

A German probate court later issued a "certificate of inheritance" that declared Gunther Gottfeld to be the "sole heir" to the Furstenwalde property, according to Dudley's ruling.

According to court documents, Karl Gottfeld sold his share of the family business to Willi Gottfeld in 1935 and fled to Argentina during the rise of the Nazi regime.

Miller's lawyers argued in court papers that the sale was made "under duress." But Dudley's ruling says documentation shows that Karl Gottfeld was "fully cognizant of his actions" and that there is nothing in the paperwork that alleges that Willi Gottfeld forced his brother to sell his share.

Willi Gottfeld arrived in the United States in 1941, after serving time in a concentration camp and after selling the family business at a loss. That sale was the basis for the reparations, according to court papers.

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