Victims of Nazis in mass law suit Germans sued by 22,000 survivors

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The Independent Online
POLISH HOLOCAUST survivors, with an average age of 78, launched almost 22,000 lawsuits yesterday seeking compensation from the German government.

The 21,826 concentration camp survivors are the latest group from eastern Europe who have yet to receive compensation on the scale given to Holocaust survivors living in the West.

Because Germany does not recognise class action suits, each survivor must petition individually. They are demanding DM1,800 (pounds 629) for every month spent in a concentration camp, and further payments for the physical suffering endured. Some spent only a few months in camps, others up to four years. The total claim amounts to nearly DM2bn.

"We are calling upon the judiciary to take an initiative and do whatever is possible under the law," said their lawyer, Dieter Wissgott, as he handed over all the documents to the court in Bonn. Germany has paid out more than DM100bn to victims of Nazism, but many living in eastern Europe were given nothing, and their legal situation is hazy.

Even more complex is the plight of hundreds of thousands of people from the occupied countries who were kept in conditions of slavery by German firms. Attempts to extract payment under German law have faltered, so survivors are switching their attacks to courts in the US where class action suits are allowed. Their cause received a boost in San Francisco, where survivors, Jewish groups and Gray Davis, the Governor of California, joined forces in a suit against six major firms. The companies are Lufthansa, Deutsche Bank, Dresdner Bank and the conglomerate Viag, as well as the American firms General Motors and Ford, which had operations in Germany during the Second World War.

"The real goal here is to try to get a few dollars into the hands of some elderly people ... and to do it fast while it can still make a difference in their lifetime," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which is backing the lawsuit. German banks and companies, accused of profiting from the use of forced labourers during the Nazi regime, have come under increasing pressure since a $1.25 billion (pounds 790m) settlement last year between Swiss banks and Holocaust victims. More than a dozen German companies have agreed to set up a fund to compensate their wartime slaves, but negotiations are going slowly.

Patience is ebbing. "This is not something that will only be decided between governments or on the federal level," Rabbi Cooper warned. "Americans have other unique human rights tools at their disposal."