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New German Chancellor Pledges to Help Compensate Slave Laborers

In a reversal of the previous government’s policy, Germany’s new center-left coalition has pledged to help establish a fund to compensate Nazi-era slave laborers.

Chancellor-elect Gerhard Schroeder said Tuesday there are no concrete plans yet for the fund, but “we’ve already started thinking about” working with German firms to deal with compensation.

Outgoing Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who transfers power to Schroeder next week, had ruled out government participation in such a fund, saying Germany had already paid billions of dollars in compensation.

Schroeder’s announcement came as increasing numbers of German companies are being named in class-action lawsuits filed in the United States by former slave laborers and face the possibility of similar suits in Germany.

Schroeder acknowledged that firms which employed forced labor under the Third Reich have a “moral duty to fulfill.” But he added that the companies have a “need for protection against legal action that we have to guarantee.”

Volkswagen and the electronics firm Siemens recently issued separate announcements of plans to establish their own funds to compensate former slave workers.

German firms have until very recently repeated what has been their standard argument: The German government is responsible for such payments because it is the legal successor to the Nazi regime.

But growing international interest — sparked by the controversies in Switzerland about Nazi gold and the dormant bank accounts of Holocaust victims — has focused attention on other unresolved compensation issues.

After the war, a handful of German firms made one-time compensation payments to former Jewish slave laborers. But the sums involved were small and millions of eastern Europeans were never compensated.

The announcement by Schroeder’s incoming government coincided with a three-day conference held in Frankfurt at which nearly 100 former workers at forced-labor plants owned by pre-World War II industrial giant I.G. Farben gathered to tell their stories of survival.

For many, it was their first reunion in more than half a century. The mostly Jewish survivors now live in countries scattered around the world, including the United States, France, Israel and Germany.

The conference was held at the former headquarters of I.G. Farben, the chemical company that produced the deadly gas used at the Nazi extermination camps to kill millions of victims.

An estimated 30,000 slave laborers at the I.G. Farben plant located near the Auschwitz death camp died due to inhumane working and living conditions.

Survivors attending the conference planned to visit neighborhood schools to tell their experiences to young Germans.

At Tuesday’s opening ceremonies, survivor Sig Halbreich, who now lives in Los Angeles, said the survivors were entrusted with the responsibility of keeping alive the memory of Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the Nazi era.

Halbreich, who helped organize the conference, said the meeting was being held at a time “when Holocaust denial has become a virtual industry, and when far too many young people — including, shockingly, many young Jews — are desperately ignorant about the Shoah and its relevance to their lives today.”

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