Holocaust: Victory of a sort for woman enslaved in Auschwitz

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A Jewish woman forced to work in an Auschwitz munitions factory during the war finally won partial compensation yesterday from the German government. The Bonn court's verdict could trigger an avalanche of similar claims by thousands of former Nazi slaves, reports Imre Karacs.

Fifty-two years after liberation from the world's most notorious death-camp, and a fleeting five years after submitting her legal claim, Rywka Merin is to receive the reward of her labours.

By the decision of a German court, Germany owes the Israeli woman DM15,000 (pounds 5,350) plus interest for five years. It may not seem much for assembling grenades for the Wehrmacht 12 hours every day for three years, nor does it compensate for the beatings, degradation and hunger, but a principle has been established: even slaves are entitled to some pay.

Mrs Merin was one of 22 women who had been suing the German government for five years. The court ruled yesterday that the other 21, two of whom died during the hearing, were not entitled to a single pfennig. They received compensation in the past for the suffering they endured and merited no more remuneration.

The women had been "employed" by the German company Union, which went into liquidation in 1994. Union provided board and lodging - the familiar kind in Auschwitz, including one bowl of watery soup a day. One plaintiff told the court they were woken at 3am every day and marched for two hours to the factory.

The "employees" received no payment but the SS was paid a daily "hire charge". The German state had, therefore, benefited financially from this arrangement, said the defence. Establishing gain and responsibility has vexed similar claims in the past. German companies used 12 million slaves during the war, mostly Jews, concentration-camp inmates and citizens of occupied countries. Most perished in the factories, but there are a a few survivors.

Some of the companies that grew rich on their toils, such as Krupp, Siemens and Volkswagen, made voluntary payments to the victims but survivors' groups say they tended to be derisory. Until yesterday's verdict, no one had sued successfully for compensation.

The German government, on the other hand, has paid DM100bn since the war to groups representing Holocaust survivors. Jews in the US, Western Europe and Israel have collected one-off payments and pensions. East European Jews missed out, with Communists, homosexuals, Gypsies and other minorities.

Mrs Merin had not been paid because she only emigrated from Poland to Israel in 1969, by which time compensation for Israelis had been settled.

"Many people are still waiting," said judge Heinz Sonnenberger as he read out yesterday's verdict. Among these are an estimated 30,000 former Nazi slaves who have been banging on closed doors all these years. "Basically, some people will have a right to compensation now," said the women's representative, Baron Klaus von Munchhausen. "I imagine some of them would stand a good chance." But the baron, who has twice been sacked from the civil service for helping enemies of the German state, was outraged by the decision to deny the other women. "All foreign slave-labourers have a right to remuneration for wages, and we don't agree that the court can exclude these claims," he fumed, dismissing Mrs Merin's reward as a "tip".