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Survivors of Holocaust Sue German Firms

Courts: Class-action suits seek compensation from companies they claim profited from slave labor.

September 01, 1998|From Reuters

NEW YORK — Holocaust survivors filed two class-action lawsuits against some of Germany's biggest and best-known companies, accusing the firms of profiting from Nazi-era slave labor, lawyers said Monday.

One lawsuit names Volkswagen and the second lists the German auto maker and its Audi subsidiary along with electronics giant Siemens, auto makers BMW and Daimler-Benz, steelmaker Krupp-Hoesch and engineering group MAN. Photography equipment group Leica and weapons maker Diehl were also named.

The companies are believed to have used more than 2 million slave laborers during the Nazi era, German lawyer Michael Witti told a news conference in Munich. Witti and U.S. attorney Edward Fagan filed the multi-company suit in federal court in Brooklyn late Sunday.

The lawsuit naming just Volkswagen was filed in Newark, N.J., Monday on behalf of Holocaust survivors forced to work as slave laborers during World War II, said attorney Mel Weiss.

Volkswagen of America Inc., based in the Detroit suburb of Auburn Hills, said in a statement that it had not been served with the lawsuit and had no further comment.

The amount of damages sought in the suit against the group of companies could reach $150 million, and the suit against Volkswagen will seek "hundreds of millions" of dollars, attorneys said.

Four Holocaust survivors were at a news conference in New York on Monday to announce details of the 31-page lawsuit, which says that from 1933 to 1945, all of the companies named in the suit "contributed to the Holocaust, prolonged it and the war."

MAN, one of the first firms to react to the legal action, denied that its predecessor, GHH, used concentration camp inmates as labor during the Nazi era. A spokesman said the firm was awaiting the specific charges contained in the suit.

A Daimler-Benz spokesman said the company was not sure of the specific accusations in the suit and could not comment. But he said Daimler-Benz takes the issue "very seriously" and has already paid out $11.4 million since the early 1980s to organizations representing Holocaust victims.

Volkswagen in July announced a plan to establish a voluntary fund to compensate the thousands of slave laborers who worked at the company's headquarters during the war.

But the attorneys filing the lawsuits said they thought that fund was insufficient.

Swiss banks recently agreed, under threat of economic boycott by several U.S. states, to a landmark $1.25-billion settlement with Holocaust survivors over unreturned assets in dormant Nazi-era accounts.

BMW and Daimler, which rely on exports for more than half their business, have said they would be ready to pay restitution to Holocaust victims if the German government joined them in a joint fund.

Bonn, which has already paid more than $57 billion in various forms of compensation since World War II, rejected the proposal and said its coffers for further reparations were closed.

Weiss said the lawsuit against Volkswagen was filed on behalf of Jews who were used as slave laborers while in concentration camps, as well as Italian, Polish, French, Ukrainian and other prisoners of war.

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