Slave labourers to sue Ford for brutality under Nazis

Survivors of death factories are demanding compensation. Louise Jury reports
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FORD, THE American car company, is to face legal action from men and women used as forced labour when the Nazis took over its factory in Germany during the Second World War .

Thousands of people, mainly civilians taken to Germany illegally from Eastern Europe and prisoners of war, were starved and viciously beaten when the regime turned its industry over to the war effort. Many are now seeking compensation.

Lawyers Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes and Lerach will this week launch their claim against the American car giant, with other United States and German manufacturers set to face legal action in the near future.

Although Ford had no control over its factory during the war, the lawyers believe it has a responsibility to those forced to work there.

A BBC investigation for Radio 4's World at One and BBC2's Newsnight programmes has revealed what happened in the car plant during the war years. In reports due to be broadcast today, victims of forced labour speak out about their time at the factory and argue that they should be compensated now.

Elsa Iwanowa, a Russian forced from her home to work for the Nazis at the age of 16, told reporter Rob Broomby: "At the factory, we worked non- stop and were starving all the time. We were treated as animals. We had no names only numbers. We were starving and it was freezing cold. The work was extremely hard."

Her name will be put forward as a representative for the proposed class action against Ford. The lawyers Milburg Weiss have the details of another 2,600 people who worked at the plant, where production of military trucks continued nearly all the way through the war.

The claim is based on the principle of quasi-contract - that workers in the factory were employed and should have been paid. There is also the notion of "unjust enrichment" from the war-time labourers' work.

Mel Weiss, acting for the former workers, said: "The profits should be appropriated for the slave labourers and [the compensation] should be part punitive in nature." Yet John Rintamaki, Ford's company lawyer, said that the Cologne plant was commandeered by the Nazis.

"They dictated what was going to be made, how it would be made, and the labour conditions," Mr Rintamaki said. "It's our view that this is a matter for the German government with respect to the actions of the Nazi government between 1940 and 1945."

The company believes that it received no profits or dividends from the factory, he said. "We've looked at the records again to try to understand what happened and ... as far as we can tell, for instance, Ford did not receive any profits or dividends from the operation in Cologne.

However, the BBC investigation showed that dividends of at least 5 per cent were being put aside as late as 1943, and what happened to that money remains a mystery.

Hans Grande, the 93-year-old former head of production at the plant, said that the intention was clearly that payments would be made to shareholders at a later date.