By MELISSA EDDY
The Associated Press
Friday, March 30, 2007; 4:03 PM
BERLIN -- A German retail giant agreed Friday to pay a Jewish family $117.2 million for a plot of land in the heart of Berlin that it lost under the Nazis, resolving one of the city's longest-running World War II-era compensation disputes.
Under the agreement, KarstadtQuelle AG will also retract competing claims it had with heirs of the Wertheim family on 50 other properties throughout Berlin and its surrounding state of Brandenburg, clearing the way for those plots to be restituted.
"It was our interest to do justice to our responsibility in terms of history," KarstadtQuelle chief executive Thomas Middelhoff said in a statement announcing the deal.
The money will flow through the Jewish Claims Conference, which said it will use an unspecified amount of the income to fund programs for Holocaust victims. The rest will go to heirs of the Wertheim family.
The family, whose members are scattered across the globe, began the legal dispute with the retailer 15 years ago in an effort to win compensation for a city block known as the Lenne Triangle located on Potsdamer Platz, in the heart of redeveloped Berlin.
The Wertheims once ran a grand department store there. It was seized by the Nazis as part of Adolf Hitler's anti-Semitic "Aryanization" laws, which gave Jewish property to Germans. The family lost the business and several other properties, and the store was destroyed during the war.
"The Wertheim department store was a symbol of German Jewry before the war _ it is about recognizing history," Gideon Taylor, Claims Conference vice president, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "There was a strong legal case and a strong moral case, and Karstadt finally came to accept that."
The Potsdamer Platz area has mirrored 20th-century German history: a bustling crossroads through the 1930s and stuck in the Berlin Wall's no-man's-land after World War II, it has become an upscale business and hotel complex since Germany reunited in 1990.
The complicated fight over rightful ownership of the Lenne Triangle draws on elements from all eras.
With Wertheim heirs scattered outside Germany, their West German assets were sold to the Hertie department store chain under disputed circumstances after the war. KarstadtQuelle bought Hertie in 1994.
The Lenne Triangle property was sold to developers after reunification _ a sale KarstadtQuelle insists was legitimate.
Karstadt's argument is that the Lenne Triangle was ceded in 1988 to the west from East Germany _ a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall _ and so is covered by the sale of Wertheim's West German properties to Hertie.
The agreement announced Friday ends all issues between the parties, including claims for damages in Germany and the United States, KarstadtQuelle said in a statement.
The settlement was agreed to after a year of negotiations mediated by former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
"My family and I are glad that we have finally reached this agreement with KarstadtQuelle AG to end the legal battle over Wertheim," said Barbara Principe, of Newfield, N.J. She is the granddaughter of one of the founding members of the Wertheim company.
Taylor credited the efforts by Kohl, who engaged each side in talks before bringing them together, and a willingness on the part of Middelhoff to see an end to the dispute.
"I think there was a sense that the time had finally come to bring this case to closure," Taylor said. "There was a strong legal case and a strong moral case, and Karstadt finally came to accept that."
Associated Press writer David Rising contributed to this report from Berlin.