Holocaust slaves set to gain compensation

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The Independent Online
FEAR OF a Swiss banks-style public relations disaster for German businesses is forcing firms that used slave labour during the Third Reich to compensate the former workers.

The recent capitulation by Swiss banks, which, after years of stonewalling, agreed this month to set up a $1bn compensation fund, may prompt German companies to follow suit, thus deflecting the threat of lawsuits from former slave labourers or their descendants.

Volkswagen has announced it will set up its own compensation fund for individual victims and BMW is also ready to pay. Other major companies such as Siemens are not excluding the possibility of compensating former slave labourers and may also pay into a central fund.

VW, whose slave labourers during the war were often beaten or worked to death, denies it has a legal responsibility to compensate Holocaust survivors. Instead, company officials say they are making a humanitarian gesture. They say companies such as VW were forced to use slave labour.

"From a legal position the crimes of the Nazis were a state crime, and the issue of slave labour compensation must be addressed to the government, but this is a recognition of our historical and moral responsibilities," said Bernd Graef, head of Volkswagen archives.

The record of German big business and the German government on compensating former slave labourers is shameful, Jewish groups and some historians say. Firms and the government have stonewalled and opposed every move to recognising their liability.

It took a 12-year campaign to achieve compensation for 21 women who worked in a munitions factory near Auschwitz. One of the women eventually received pounds 5,500.

Former slave workers for IG Farben, the chemical company that owned the patent on Zyklon B, the gas used in the death camps, are still campaigning for compensation like that given by VW. "The German government has never acknowledged its obligation to give full compensation for slave labour - it has opposed survivors' claims at every turn and defended these corporations against legal liability," said Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, a historian researching the issue for the Holocaust Education Trust.

"The majority of major German companies are to a large extent the same ones who used slave labour in the Third Reich."