Elsa Rose Lowenstein was 57 and a housewife in wartime Berlin when her world broke apart. Her husband, a judge and a Jew who feared he faced arrest by the Gestapo, swallowed a suicide pill and died. Elsa, abandoning the family's home and property, fled into the Swiss Alps to safety.
Today Mrs. Lowenstein, frail and ailing at 93 in an apartment in Northwest Washington, has new hope that she may win repayment from the East German government for the property she left behind 36 years ago.
Through a year-old program administered by the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission and the State Department, she and thousands of other victims of the Third Reich have been able to submit claims for family homes, businesses, real estate, bank accounts, stocks and other property.
About 50 corporations are among the claimants, including a $10 million claim by the Exxon Corp., but more than half of the 3,800 suits filed as far are from European Jews who are now American citizens. The claims now total a whopping $888 million, according to officials in charge of the program.
And although it could take another two years to validate each claim and submit a final bill, the State Department said it expects payment by the East German government.
A spokesman for the East German Chancery here acknowledged that his country is "willing to discuss the issue" and that preliminary talks on establishing the form of future negotiations have already taken place.
"It's a moral debt. They want to wipe the slade clean," said a State Department official.
The East Germans also seek most-favored-nation status with the United States by which they would enjoy expanded trade with America and gain access to Western technology, said a commission staff member.
Technically, the victims' claims are not for property seized by the Nazis - the East German government vehemently objects to any identification with the Hitler regime. Payment would be for property taken by the Communist East German government through nationalization or expropriation after the war.
"First we were robbd by the Nazis, then by the Communists. It's an old story. There are thousands like it," said one claimant, an Alexandria retiree who asked not to be identified.
In the air-conditioned office of the claims commission, at 20th and L street NW where discussion often centers on intricate questions of jurisdiction, the personal stories behind the claims sometimes seem remote.
But Mrs. Lowenstein, for one remembers. "I left Germany after my husband took his own life . . . He said he needed something in case they (the Nazis) pursued him too much.
"A Nazi who said he was a friend gave him some pills. He acted as our best friend. He acted so good my husband made him our inheritor, leaving him everything."
Shortly thereafter her husband died and the property passed to the Nazi.
Mrs. Lowenstein and her son, a Silver Spring physician, also claim an interest in a mortgage on a house sold to a close friend.
"He was a lawyer in Berlin, Dr. Manfred Goldberger," she said. "His wife and son had gone to Paris by that time. He always wrote us. Then he sent us a card that he was on the list to be deported to the East. That was the last we heard from him. He was killed by Hitler."
Norbert Seligson, a retired journalist living in Washington, filed a claim for compensation for a house, factory and apartment building in Berlin.
"We were of Jewish extraction so we couldn't hold property. The house had to be 'Aryanized'. That meant you had to sell the house to the first comer at a ridiculous price.The Nazis comer at a ridiculous price. The Nazis liked to do everything legally," said Seligson, who fled from the Reich across the Soviet Union, through Siberia, to Shanghai.
When Seligson's relatives went back to Berlin after the war to inspect the property, he said, "they found nothing but a moon landscape."
Most claimants are from New York City, Chicago, Miami and other metropolitan areas with high concentrations of Jewish immigrants, said David Rogers, program director of the East Germany claims division.
The division, unable to examine records in East Germany, faces enormous problems in trying to validate the claims. It maintains a skeleton staff in Munich where attorneys pore over 40-year-old title and tax records trying to ascertain who owns the property.
Some claims are so large and complicated that the commission staff could spend all its time on a single claim.
One claim, not yet validated and not included in the $888 million total, is by a Falls Church woman, Wilma L. Phelan, who seeks compensation for property running possibly into billions of dollars as an heir to the Hohenzollern family that once ruled Germany.
Attached to her file are several pages of genealogical charts offered in support of her claim. In a handwritten letter she said that she is unable to afford an attorney to assist her.
Once the claims division has rendered a decision on each of the 3,800 files, it will certify those approved to the U.S. Treasury. The Treasury will pay out the amount if and when it receives payment from the East German government.
The U.S. government will retain 5 percent of the total payment as reimbursement for expenses in prosecuting the claims.