PHILADELPHIA -- For 68 years, Barbara Principe thought she knew who she was:
A Lutheran raised on a South Jersey chicken farm. A proud mother living in the same small, Newfield, N.J., home where she raised seven children. A wisecracking grandmother who works seven hours a day on the Peerless Pearl Co. assembly line, making sure each shirt button has four holes, not five.
"A simple individual," Principe says. "A simple life."
Then, one day in 2000, things got complicated.
Gary Osen, a Bergen County, N.J., lawyer, called. He talked, and he talked, and he talked. For hours, he wove tales of Principe's father, Nazis, an alleged fraud, a long-lost diary, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, dubious land deals, a German conglomerate, and a graduate student who uncovered a mystery.
The bottom line: In modern-day dollars, Principe's German ancestors, the Wertheims, were billionaires.
And, the lawyer calculated, Principe might be worth $80 million.
What's more, she might be a Jew.
Principe is now a lead plaintiff in what could be one of the largest Holocaust-era claims ever.
Two primary claims
She and her relatives have two primary claims pending: One in Germany seeks Berlin land once owned by her family's company. One in federal court in Newark, N.J., seeks damages in excess of $150 million, plus unspecified damages her lawyer says could be worth hundreds of millions more. A ruling by the U.S. judge, who must decide if the case can proceed in American courts, is expected this summer.
Principe's family fortune, wrested away by the Nazis, once included a chain of department stores and prime Berlin real estate, land that Adolf Hitler seized for his headquarters and that later straddled the Berlin Wall. Those who hold current title to the property, including the German government, are reluctant to give it up.
"I'm flabbergasted at the whole concept," Principe says, insisting her parents, who whisked her from Germany in 1939, never spoke of the old family business once they settled in South Jersey.
"It's like having vacant property right smack in the middle of New York City. What's that worth, you think?"
The German government and KarstadtQuelle AG, the company that ultimately acquired the family department-store chain, say they are sympathetic to Principe's story. Nonetheless, they have asked the court in Newark to dismiss her lawsuit, arguing U.S. courts do not have jurisdiction.
German officials cite a 2000 agreement with the U.S. government that directs Holocaust-era cases to a special German commission. A government spokesman, Oliver Schramm, declined to comment.
Principe follows the case closely. In court, she listens as the lawyers argue over "subject-matter jurisdiction" and "international comity." What interests her most is history.
"When I read the legal documents in the case, it's like reading a story about someone else," she says. "Until a few years ago, I had no knowledge of any of this. I don't understand all of it and it's confusing and I get angry. I know my father died young because of stress. Now, I know why."
The farmer's daughter
Principe, now 70, has vague memories of the Germany she left at age 6, when her name was Barbara Wertheim. She recalls a big house, her mother hanging an Advent calendar, and presents under a Christmas tree.
She does not remember the night in 1939 the family fled Germany for Cuba. She knows they settled in Elmer, N.J., a Cumberland County farm town, in 1941.
There, they started a chicken farm. It was a hard life. Winter mornings, the children's chores included smashing ice in the troughs so the hens could drink. After school, they gathered and sorted eggs.
Principe's father wasn't much of a farmer. He suffered from kidney stones and colitis, a disease that forced him to carry a bedpan wherever he went.
"He kept getting sicker and sicker," she says. "It was all nerves. It was not a happy, cheerful household."
Her parents never spoke of life in Germany.
In 1951, at age 18, she married a local button-factory worker, Dominick Principe. They lived with her parents. At night, he helped out on the farm.
Three years later, Principe's father died at age 52 of a heart attack. Principe knew he had been an angry man. She had little clue why.
The graduate student
In 1994, Simone Ludwig-Winters, a 39-year-old German graduate student researching the Wertheim company history, unearthed a pile of documents from prewar Germany, records that would later unlock a window into Principe's hazy past.
The papers, unavailable until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, included Wertheim's archival bank records. Ludwig-Winters also obtained the diary of Wertheim's chairman in the 1930s. She produced a detailed history, going back to Principe's great-grandparents' business in 1875. It eventually grew into a valuable department store in the heart of Berlin.