Prague, 31 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Ten days ago (Aug. 21) four Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, born in Eastern Europe but now living in New York, filed a class-action legal suit against the huge German chemical and manufacturing conglomerate, Degussa. The suit --filed in New Jersey, the home of Degussa's U.S. affiliate-- could turn out to be a devastating one for a firm that today does $8 billion of business worldwide.
The four plaintiffs accused the firm both of making deadly Zyklon B gas used to exterminate Jews in World War Two and of recycling gold fillings torn from the teeth of concentration-camp victims. The survivors charged the company, in the words of their complaint, with "laundering gold looted by the Nazis by smelting it...and allowing such stolen gold to be used to finance the Nazi war effort.? They are seeking all the assets of Degussa AG in Germany and its U.S. subsidiary. Their attorney, Edward Fagan, said of Degussa: "Basically, I want to see them bankrupt."
A Degussa spokeswoman (Monika Hillemacher) said a few days later that the firm only knew, in her words, "what we read in the newspapers" and would have no further comment until it received official notification of the suit.
But in an official statement, the company said that public calls for a boycott and sanctions against Degussa were what it called "incomprehensible." The statement added: "We are aware of Degussa's links with the totalitarian Nazi regime. For that very reason, we have commissioned German and foreign historians to investigate Degussa's history in the Nazi period." The company also said it would continue to support Jewish projects in Israel, Germany and Eastern Europe.
The Degussa law suit is the most recent manifestation of a significant increase in pressure by U.S. lawyers representing Holocaust victims on European companies involved in the mass murder of millions of European Jews during the War.
As a result, several large European insurance companies, also subject to U.S. legal action and possible embargoes, have recently agreed to independent arbitration of survivors' claims to unpaid policies taken out before and during the War. And the two largest Swiss commercial banks (Union Bank and Credit Suisse) avoided U.S. and other embargoes by agreeing recently to pay $1.25 billion on assets of Holocaust victims they have never returned to survivors or their heirs.
But Degussa, according to U.S. lawyer Fagan, is not likely to escape a long legal action with an out-of-court settlement. Fagan said his clients "want this case to go to trial, (they want) the company's assets to be owned by Holocaust victims." Their complaint says a recent report by independent historians commissioned by Germany's Deutsche Bank --itself under suspicion of active cooperation with the Nazis-- "specifically recognizes Degussa's independent role as an active accomplice in perpetrating the financial crimes and human-rights violations of the Nazi regime."
Whatever happens in the Degussa affair --and the case could take two to three years to come to trial-- it is clear that, with the capitulation of the Swiss banks and four major European insurance companies in the past few weeks, a shift in Holocaust settlement cases is now underway.
Among new targets are German and other companies that, on behalf of the Nazi war effort, employed some eight million, mostly East European and mostly non-Jewish, slave laborers without pay and often in appalling conditions.
Other targets are companies like Degussa that allegedly profited by playing an integral part in the Nazi extermination of the Jews, Gypsies and other so-called "sub-human" religious and ethnic groups. Degussa, it is charged, actually suggested the idea to Nazi authorities of extracting gold teeth from condemned Jews --before as well as after their gassing-- as well as providing help in producing the gas that killed them.
Additional targets are in countries other than Germany, some of which have for years thought of themselves either as neutral or as victims of the war. The Austrian Creditanstalt (CA) bank, for example, has been included in an $18 billion suit filed by Holocaust survivors against Germany's Deutsche and Dresdener banks. The complaint charges that the Austrian bank, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bank during the War, knowingly traded in looted personal property, including gold, stolen from concentration-camp victims.
In response the CA, like the two German banks, is seeking an out-of-court settlement that would keep unfavorable publicity to a minimum and ensure that it could continue to operate internationally without legal hindrance. It has also promised a new search of its archives although, it says, the number of documents they contain from the Nazi period is "very modest."
Even countries occupied by the Nazis are likely to be subject to intense scrutiny in the near future. World Jewish Congress Executive Director Elan Steinberg, whose organization has played a key role in the Holocaust negotiations, gave an example of art galleries and museums in France that, he said, hold thousands of art works which were looted by the Nazis and never returned to the owners or their survivors.
Steinberg believes there are several reasons for the new, intensified focus on Holocaust settlements that has come 50 years after the end of the War. First, he says, two generations were needed to allow the institutions involved to confront their own culpability. Second, he notes that only recently have key official documents relating to the Holocaust --many but far from all of them in the U.S.-- been declassified, and that "they provide us with the kind of (detailed) information that was not available 50 years ago."
Steinberg also cites two other important factors: the political backing of the U.S., Britain and other Western nations which, he says, "have leant their full moral and political weight to this undertaking and made it in fact possible --(that backing) wasn't there 50 years ago." And the last factor, Steinberg says, is the growing public awareness of the nature and history of the Holocaust. In Steinberg's words it is:
"...the Schindler effect --that is to say, movies such as 'Schindler's List,' the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, (etc.)....(These events) have created a greater sensitivity and understanding of the nature of the Holocaust --so that when we approach governments, institutions or archives, there is this greater understanding and sensitivity, and a greater openness to cooperating with us."
(This is part three of a three-part series.)