March 11, 1999
Laborers File Suit for Wartime Injustices
Jews who worked as slave laborers during the Nazi era are one step closer to receiving some measure of compensation for their ordeal.
After months of torturous negotiations, an agreement has been reached to establish a $5.2 billion fund for these victims of the Holocaust, according to several lawyers and Jewish officials involved in the talks.
The money will come from Germany, a group of German companies, and U.S. companies whose German subsidiaries used slave labor during the war, said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which was among the groups negotiating on behalf of the laborers.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is slated to be in Berlin on Friday for the announcement of the agreement.
An issue still to be decided -- which may prove as contentious as the negotiations themselves -- is the process of distributing the funds to survivors.
The allocation "is still being discussed," Taylor said.
The German offer would affect some 250,000 concentration camp survivors -- 135,000 of them Jewish -- who were enslaved by German companies during the war.
It would also compensate between 475,000 and 1.2 million non-Jewish forced laborers from Central and Eastern Europe who were deported and sent to work in Germany.
Payments would also go to other victims who never received reparations.
In addition to the $5.2 billion, claims against German insurers being handled by the International Commission on Holocaust Era Claims also are expected to be included in the fund, though this part of the agreement remained unclear.
The commission, which is headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, was scheduled to meet Wednesday in London.
"We hope that this will be a much delayed measure of justice for Holocaust survivors," Taylor said.
Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, who is representing the United States in the negotiations, declined Tuesday to give any details about the agreement before making a formal announcement Friday, according to his office.
The agreement came after months of difficult negotiations.
During the past several days, there was a flurry of activity. On Monday, lawyers for survivors reduced their demand to $5.7 billion. Earlier in the talks, the lawyers had demanded $28 billion. Germany and the group of German companies recently offered $4.2 billion to create the fund.
With the latest -- and much reduced -- demand from the victims' representatives, the German side increased its offer and a compromise was achieved.
Michael Witti, an attorney for survivors based in Munich, said Tuesday that even with an agreement, there would be "no feeling of victory on the side of the victims."
"You can never repay people for what they suffered," he said.
A similar sentiment was expressed by survivor Hans Frankenthal, 73, who for 22 months during the war worked as a slave laborer at an armaments factory in the Mauthausen concentration camp and at I.G. Farben's chemical factory near Auschwitz.
An agreement would mean a "guarantee that there would be no more suits," said Frankenthal. "But you can't take away" the history of the war.
Frankenthal, who recently published his memoirs, never received any compensation for his years of slave labor.
So far, 17 German firms have signed on to the industry initiative, and about 60 are considering doing so, according to industry spokesman Wolfgang Gibowski.
Among the U.S. firms with German subsidiaries that employed slave labor, a spokesman for Opel AG, the German branch of General Motors, said on Monday that Opel would join the industry fund.
Though the amount of the contribution has not been decided, "we are confessing our responsibility," Opel spokesman Bruno Seifert said on Monday.
A Ford spokesman told reporters Monday that the company is one of some 200 companies with German operations that are considering taking part in the industry fund.
Publicity over the slave labor issue has achieved mixed results in Germany.
On one hand, a recent opinion poll suggested that the wrangling over money had caused latent German anti-Semitism to resurface.
On the other hand, some Germans have reacted with disgust to the news that many existing German companies whose predecessors used slave laborers are not joining the compensation fund.
A German newspaper this week published a letter from one reader, who hoped that "many, many people will boycott the products" of those German firms unwilling to participate in the fund.
"I for one don't need any Bahlsen cookies or AGFA film or WFM tableware, nor Miele washing machines.''
JTA correspondent Toby Axelrod in Berlin contributed to this report.