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Jewish Heirs Win Ruling in Germany

Court Backs Compensation Claim

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 5, 2005; Page A12

BERLIN, March 4 -- A German appeals court ruled Friday that a Jewish family forced to sell large tracts of prime real estate in Berlin before World War II deserved to recover part of its lost fortune in one of the largest remaining compensation claims from the Nazi era.

The court upheld an earlier legal decision in favor of the Wertheim family, which once owned a luxury department store chain and dozens of properties in the heart of Berlin but lost its holdings in the late 1930s when the Nazi government ordered the confiscation and forced sale of Jewish businesses and assets.

The Beisheim Center, a complex with hotels and apartments, stands on one of several sites formerly owned by the Wertheim family. (Markus Schreiber -- AP)

Though some members perished in concentration camps, most of the Wertheim family fled Germany in 1939. Some descendants today live in New Jersey and learned of their family's former holdings only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

"It's another hurdle overcome," Barbara Principe, the eldest of the heirs and a New Jersey resident, said of the ruling, according to the Associated Press. "I feel that nobody has the right to stand in my family's place."

The court decision Friday affected only one of the disputed properties: a tract valued at about $26 million that is owned by KarstadtQuelle, Germany's largest retailer. But the ruling is expected to set a precedent in several other cases and could enable the Wertheims to collect as much as $200 million in damages from Karstadt.

The case was brought on behalf of the Wertheim family by the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, an organization that has negotiated compensation claims for Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the Third Reich since 1952.

"We felt that the legal case was strong and that the moral case was strong," Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, said in a telephone interview. "The family is a symbolic family. Their stores were a symbol of prewar Jewish life in Germany."

Karstadt officials said they would seek to appeal the decision, even though the judges hearing the case issued a strongly worded order discouraging any such moves. The company has vigorously contested the Wertheim claims since a German government agency first ruled against it in 2001.

"Naturally, we are disappointed," Joerg Howe, a Karstadt spokesman, said after Friday's ruling. "If you had been in the courtroom, you would have seen that the judges had already fixed their opinion even before the hearing took place."

The decision could deal a heavy blow to Karstadt, a department store giant in Germany since the 1880s that has struggled financially in recent years and announced plans in September to lay off thousands of workers and close more than one-third of its 180 stores.

The Wertheim real estate includes a five-acre parcel near Potsdamerplatz -- a high-rise office and entertainment district formerly separated by the Berlin Wall -- that Karstadt sold five years ago for $150 million. A Ritz Carlton and a Marriott hotel stand on the site.

Other Wertheim properties were later acquired by the German government. One of them is home to an annex to the German parliament building. Another property is the former site of Hitler's Reich Chancellery.

The German government originally contested the Wertheim claims to several properties, but it abandoned its appeals of lower-court rulings in 2003. It is negotiating a settlement with the Wertheims and the Claims Conference.

Taylor said talks with the German government were proceeding smoothly.

"The German government, back when it withdrew its claim, took a very moral position," he said. "Unfortunately, Karstadt has stood in the way for a very, very long time -- stood in the way of a just resolution to a very big injustice."

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