Auschwitz survivor Tibor (Ted) Deutsch will never forget the dark day in 1944 that forever shaped his life. Deutsch was only 16 when he and his older brother, Georg, were among the 1,000 Jews assigned to slave labor at a Trzebinia subcamp assigned to the service the venerable German construction company Hochtief.
A Hochtief employee prone to terrorizing the Deutsch brothers with physical violence ended Georg's life with one final, brutal, unprovoked assault, before his brother's eyes. Georg was only 18.
"I can still see his face," Deutsch said as he recalled his brother's murderer. "I still hear his voice. It rings in my ears."
Deutsch, now a 74-year-old retired jewelry manufacturer residing in Studio City, has waged a lawsuit against Hochtief, a company established in 1875 and still thriving in Germany today. Deutsch filed a reply brief with the Court of Appeals on March 13. If he wins the appeal, the case will go to trial.
Unlike many Holocaust reparation class-action lawsuits against banks, insurance companies and countries, the Duetsch case targets a privately owned corporation.
The protracted legal saga began back in 1999, when Deutsch's longtime companion, Judy, received a book in the mail from friends in Israel: the 1989 volume, "The Auschwitz Chronicles" by Danuta Czech. When Judy opened the book, she stumbled onto something that made her scream: a photo detail of a Holocaust-era Hochtief document listing slave labor employees. On that list were the names of Tibor and Georg Deutsch. Georg had downplayed his age by two years so that he would not be separated from his younger brother. Unfortunately, he paid for this gesture with his life.
The list provided the solid evidence Deutsch needed to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against Hochtief, which recently merged with an American company called Turner Construction. (Deutch filed a lawsuit once previously, but was unsatisfied with his settlement.)
It was while attending services at Congregation Beth Meir of Studio City, that Deutsch met a woman whose brother is Nate Kraut, a Los Angeles-based attorney who is a certified appellate specialist with nearly 20 years of experience.
For Kraut, Deutsch's story resonated on a personal level for the appellate attorney.
"My father was in Auschwitz," Kraut said, "and a slave laborer as well."
Kraut took on Deutsch's case because of his "admiration for Ted's insistence for what was morally right. The challenge for me is to make sure that what's legally right fits in with what's morally right. He's very driven in wanting to expose what Hochtief did to him. These corporations are being allowed to hide. [They say,] 'Here we'll toss him some money and no one will know the difference.'"
In the summer of 1999, Hochtief successfully moved the case from state court to federal court, where the federal court judge granted the defendants' motion to dismiss, based on the conclusion that the case presented a "nonjusticable political question."
Initially, the German government and German corporations refused to allow distribution of any of the money until all lawsuits had been dismissed. Hochtief accused the Deutsch lawsuit of holding up the reparations process, but Kraut said that this accusation is false.
"The other side managed to convince the courts that this involved a political question and therefore the court stayed out of it," Kraut said. "But the matter is Deutsch directly filed a claim against Hochtief, a German corporation, not the German government."
Moreover, the District Court's ruling effectively declared California's statute on the subject to be unconstitutional.
After the District Court dismissed Deutsch's case, the German government, bowing to international pressure, was forced to pass the necessary legislation to release compensation funds anyway.
"Part of the silliness," Kraut said, "is that they aren't denying that this went on. They're saying that 'you can't pursue this. This can't touch us.' It is clear that a company like Hochtief will only respond by money. That's all they understand."
Lawsuits notwithstanding, the rage and sadness over his brother's death has been balled up inside Deutsch for years. His pain has not only taken a toll on his health -- he recently underwent open-heart surgery -- but on the emotional health of Judy, his companion of three decades, he said.
"Through the years Ted became narrowed by this," said Judy. "Day and night, he cannot sleep, and we're at the breaking point. Especially me."
"What they did," Deutsch said, "couldn't be done 50 years ago, and it can't be done today. Murder has no statute of limitations."