As a conference to settle Holocaust-related slave-labor claims opens today at the State Department, a group of plaintiffs' lawyers has vowed to exit the talks if German participants are unwilling to offer "real money."
But a spokesman for a consortium of German corporations accused of profiteering from Nazi-era slave workers said yesterday that his side won't propose anything close to the $20 billion demanded by the lawyers. And he added that the group's initial offer, scheduled to be announced today, is likely to be its last.
"From our point of view, we moved and we moved strongly," said Wolfgang G. Gibowski, spokesman for a group known as the German Enterprise Foundation, which includes DaimlerChrysler AG, Volkswagen AG and Siemens AG. "We think it's a fair offer and we don't have to be ashamed about it."
At a news conference yesterday, attorney Mel Weiss responded to a story in yesterday's Washington Post, which, citing lawyers familiar with talks, pegged the expected German offer at $3.8 billion. "If they don't step up to the plate and start negotiating, not with a pittance but with real money that's representative of their ability to pay," Weiss said, he'll march out the door.
Meanwhile, a group of Jewish organizations stepped up public pressure yesterday for a larger settlement by running ads targeting companies participating in the talks. One aimed at carmaker DaimlerChrysler ran the Mercedes-Benz logo over the words "Design. Performance. Slave Labor." Separately, the World Council of Orthodox Jewish Communities filed a lawsuit against Deutsche Bank AG for allegedly prospering from the Nazi theft of Jewish property.
As many as 12 million Central and Eastern Europeans were forced to work for little or no wages on German-run farms and factories during the Nazi regime. The two-day State Department conference is intended to resolve the claims of survivors, who are now plaintiffs in more than two dozen class-action lawsuits.
But the two sides remain far apart on key issues. For starters, there is sharp disagreement about how many former victims are still alive and will be eligible for payouts. The plaintiffs' lawyers put that number at nearly 2.4 million, while German corporations say it is closer to 900,000. One reason for the disparity: German interests plan to argue that U.S. and Israeli survivors should not share in any settlement because they already received reparations money through previous agreements.
Gibowski would not discuss the German Enterprise Foundation's proposal, but in an interview yesterday he explained that survivors would end up with far more than $200 each, as one lawyer in the Post story suggested. Jewish groups said they anticipate an offer of $3.8 billion to $4.4 billion.
Gibowski added that an offer was arrived at not by calculating how much each survivor should pocket but by asking participating companies and the German government to dig deep and contribute as much as they could.
"We were looking for what we could collect," he said, acknowledging that finding a "fair" number for victims of Hitler's regime is impossible. "What is fair," Gibowski said, "to people who lost their parents, or their children, or their youth, or lost their ability to live without problems?"
Gibowski also said that slave laborers should receive more than forced laborers since the conditions endured by the former were far worse. Some forced laborers were well fed and at least one, he said, described "the two years he was forced to work on a German farm as among the best years of his life."