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Focus on Issues: German Firm’s Slave Laborers Reunite to Educate Teen-agers

For three days, the halls of the former I.G. Farben chemical company headquarters in Frankfurt reverberated with talk of factory business for the first time since the end of World War II.

This time, however, the talk was not of profits and expansion, but of the exploitation of slave labor.

More than 90 survivors of forced labor at an I.G. Farben plant that was built on the outskirts of the Auschwitz death camp gathered during those three days to recall life during the war.

An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 men died under the inhumane working conditions at that plant, which was built by slave labor to produce artificial rubber and synthetic gasoline.

A prewar industrial giant, I.G. Farben manufactured a far more deadly product at another plant — the gas used at the Nazi extermination camps to kill millions of victims.

The meeting, held earlier this month, was marked by emotional reunions, remarkable tales of survival and passionate discussions about Nazi brutality, the absurdities of concentration camp life and the meager possibilities for resistance.

Many said they deliberated for months before accepting the invitation for the conference from the Fritz Bauer Institute, a Holocaust study center in Frankfurt.

One of those who thought long and hard before attending was Ernest Lobet, 73, of Glen Cove, N.Y.

“This is not my favorite country,” he said dryly.

Lobet said he had dealt little with his Holocaust experiences until he retired from his law career. Then, urged on by his family, he started giving talks about his life in the concentration camps.

Lobet, like all the survivors, recounted the many strokes of good luck that helped him survive.

“I have a small build and I didn’t need as much food as a much larger man. Since we all got the same amount of food, it was easier for me than for some of the others,” he said.

Lobet, like others at the conference, had gotten a one-time payment from I.G. Farben of several thousand dollars as the result of a lawsuit in 1950.

I.G. Farben was one of the few German companies to pay even a minimum of compensation to its former Jewish slave laborers.

In recent weeks, 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.

These suits, and the negative publicity they engendered, had a large part in prompting Germany’s new center-left government to pledge to find a solution.

With Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder planning to work with German industry to reach a rapid agreement on unresolved compensation issues from the Nazi era, former slave laborers may finally receive fair compensation for their work.

One of the goals of the conference was to give high school students a chance to meet the survivors.

During conference sessions, several of the former slave laborers, such as Klaus Stern from Seattle, told their stories to an auditorium packed with students.

Stern talked about how he survived after the Gestapo deported him and his family on April 19, 1943, from Berlin to Auschwitz with the last group of Jews to be deported from Berlin.

He quickly learned that his parents were murdered immediately. He said both he and his wife later discovered that they each found the strength to keep living in the hope that the other had survived.

“Every day that we wake up we are grateful to be alive. Because I survived, it is my duty to speak about what happened,” Stern said.

Meeting with smaller groups of 10 to 15 students, the survivors had a chance to give detailed accounts of their survival.

Stefan Rotbarth, who now lives in Israel, told an attentive group about his deportation from Hungary to Auschwitz in May 1944.

He only survived the selection process at Auschwitz, he said, because he lied about his age, telling the S.S. he was 17 although he was only 14.

Rotbarth told the students that “it is a great thing for me that you have come to hear me — you, the third generation. This gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

He encouraged them to ask questions — and the questions poured out.

The students wanted to know what it was like to have to look at the tattoo on his arm every day, whether his family survived, if any Germans ever helped him, if he ever tried to escape and what it was like for him to be in Germany.

One student was upset with Rotbarth’s comment that only the Germans could have organized the Holocaust. But Rotbarth did not retract his opinion.

“It was not just Auschwitz — there were hundreds of camps guarded by thousands of German soldiers. You think they didn’t know what was happening? I think the Germans at that time agreed with what was going on.”

In many of the groups, it was hard to say who was more curious — the survivors or the students. John Fink, who was born in 1920 in Berlin, did not start his talk until the students had introduced themselves and told him what they had learned about the Holocaust in school.

Then he wanted to know why they had come to hear him.

“I’m interested in hearing about the other side,” said one of the German students.

“I want to listen to someone who personally experienced the Holocaust instead of just learning about it in books,” said another.

As Fink told his story of living as a Jew in Berlin under the Nazis and then surviving life as a slave laborer in Auschwitz he did not spare details of the never-ending indignities, brutality and terror of the Nazi regime.

“We only got watery soup, bread and margarine. If you didn’t eat it immediately someone would steal it. People’s joints were continuously swollen from malnutrition. Whatever wounds you had could never heal. If you lost your shoes, you were given wooden ones in which it was impossible to walk properly.

“How could a government think of such a system?” he asked, shaking his head sadly.

Some of the survivors talked about the small acts of resistance that were possible at Auschwitz.

Sig Halbreich, who lives in Los Angeles, worked at the camp hospital.

“Physically there was no way to resist, so we helped people escape and tried to save lives, “he told a group of students.

He said the hospital staff helped younger inmates by switching beds and changing charts to keep them in the hospital long enough for them to recover.

He also was part of a resistance cell of eight long-time prisoners. Their lives were saved when a Nazi guard from his hometown warned him that one of the members of the cell, a Polish doctor, was a Nazi spy.

Halbreich, a former Polish officer who was born in 1909 in Dziedziz, Silesia, was captured by the Nazis in 1939. He spent five and a half years in concentration camps.

After moving to the United States in 1946, where he worked as a bookkeeper, a hospital administrator and a retail shop owner, he began giving lectures on his story of survival.

He gets angry when he hears comments that the Jews died like sheep being brought to the slaughter.

“I say no,” he said emphatically. “Even in the gas chambers they died with the Shema Yisrael on their lips.”

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