VW sued by slave labour survivors

Imre Karacs
Tuesday 01 September 1998 00:02
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HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS be-gan legal action against some of Germany's biggest and best-known companies yesterday, accusing the firms of profiting from Nazi-era slave labour.

One lawsuit names Volkswagen, while the second lists the German car- maker and its Audi subsidiary, as well asSiemens, the electronics giant, steel-maker Krupp-Hoesch, the engineering group MAN, andBMW and Daimler- Benz, the car manufacturers. Leica, the photographic equipment group, and weapons maker Diehl were also named.

The companies are believed to have used more than 2 million slave labourers during the Nazi era, a German lawyer, Michael Witti, said in Munich.

Mr Witti and an American lawyer, Edward Fagan, initiated the legal action against the firms in a court in Brooklyn, New York, on Sunday.

Mel Weiss, a lawyer, said the lawsuit naming only Volkswagen was filed in Newark, New Jersey, yesterday on behalf of Holocaust survivors who were forced to work as slave labourers during the Second World War.

"The ghost of the Third Reich will hang over every Volkswagen car unless the company takes action and provides justice to the thousands of its former slave labourers around the world," Mr Weiss said.

The amount sought in the suit against the group of companies could reach $150m (pounds 92m), while the legal action against Volkswagen will seek "hundreds of millions" of dollars, lawyers said. "The companies have to open their archives so that we can put a figure on the suit," Mr Witti said.

The legal action filed in a Brooklyn court says that from 1933 to 1945 all of the companies it names "contributed to the Holocaust, prolonged it and the war". One survivor, Channa Weisel, 71, of Brooklyn, described being a prisoner at Auschwitz and working long shifts for no pay at Daimler- Benz.

One of the first firms to react to the move, MAN, denied that its predecessor, GHH, used concentration camp labour during the Nazi era.

A spokesman for Daimler-Benz said the company was not sure of the specific accusations in the suit but took the issue "very seriously". The firm has already paid out DM20m (pounds 6.7m) since the early 1980s to organisations representing Holocaust victims, he said.

In July, Volkswagen announced a plan to establish a voluntary fund to compensate the thousands of slave labourers who worked at the company's headquarters during the war. But lawyers said they thought that the fund was insufficient.

The lawsuits are the latest in a batch of legal moves against German firms to get them to acknowledge the benefits they allegedly gained from the Nazi era.

Swiss banks recently agreed under the threat of economic boycott by several US states to a landmark $1.25bn settlement with Holocaust survivors over unreturned assets in dormant Nazi-era accounts.

BMW and Daimler, which rely on exports for more than half of their business, have said that they would be ready to pay restitution to Holocaust victims if the German government joined them in a joint fund.

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