BERLIN, Sept. 14 (JTA) – A series of U.S. court rulings denying the claims of Nazi-era slave laborers has been met with frustration by survivors’ advocates in Germany. But lawyers for the survivors, far from being bowed by the court judgments, are vowing to appeal – as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary. The reactions came swiftly after two U.S. federal judges, ruling Monday in two separate cases in Newark, dismissed lawsuits brought on behalf of slave laborers against Ford – whose German subsidiary used such labor during the war – and against two German firms, electronics giant Siemens and chemicals manufacturer Degussa. In the case involving Ford, the judge ruled that the claims were filed after the expiration of time limits imposed under U.S. and German law. That ruling came hours after another judge threw out an $18 million class-action lawsuit against Siemens and Degussa, citing a 1921 treaty stating that such claims are a matter for governments, not courts, to decide. The courts have “allowed the government to neglect the rights of citizens,” said Lothar Evers, director of the Nazi Victim Support Center, a German advocacy group that represents survivors of all backgrounds. Michael Witti, a Munich lawyer who is planning an appeal together with U.S. lawyer Ed Fagan on behalf of the slave workers, is meanwhile vowing to appeal. “The one who loses first is disappointed, but it doesn’t mean that the Supreme Court won’t rule differently,” he said. Degussa and Siemens were the founders of an initiative to create a fund for the former slave laborers. Sixteen German firms are currently involved with the initiative and are involved in ongoing negotiations, co-sponsored by Germany and the United States, to determine the size of the fund. In earlier talks, the German firms reportedly offered to create a fund of some $1.8 billion. The former laborers, however, are calling for a settlement totaling some $38 billion. During the negotiations, which are slated to resume next month in Washington, the firms have demanded assurances that, once they create the fund, they will be protected from further lawsuits. Gideon Taylor, executive director of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a participant in the negotiations, said Monday’s rulings would not hinder “the process of finding just resolution for slave laborers.” “This question is one of morality,” he added. Observers have said that the very threat of lawsuits is what prompted the firms to consider creating the fund in the first place. But a representative of the 16 companies, Wolfgang Gibowski, said Tuesday that the dismissal of the suits in Newark does not mean that the firms no longer feel a responsibility to compensate former slave laborers. “The basic idea of our foundation is that the issue of the slave and forced laborers is an issue with which we deal on humanitarian grounds,” said Gibowski. He added that additional firms have agreed to join the initiative “but they would like to know first how much they have to contribute to the fund, and they would like to know about legal closure” – that is, protection from future suits. The German government reportedly asked the court in July to dismiss the suit against Degussa, saying the planned industry fund would solve the problem. Meanwhile, the government has discussed creating a separate fund of its own for former slave laborers, because a large percentage of the laborers were forced to work for the Nazi state, not for private industry. Although Monday’s court decisions, if they hold up in higher courts, lessen the threat of further lawsuits in U.S. courts against German firms, it does not remove the threat of American boycotts. Otto Lambsdorff, who is representing the German government in the ongoing negotiations, has warned of potential boycotts and a cooling in bilateral relations with the United States if the industry fund is not soon created. Gibowski, the firms’ representative, said the participating companies are “not anxious about boycotts.” “We are convinced that the American people understand that German companies create jobs in the United States and are doing business in the United States and in this respect they are United States firms, too. A boycott would hurt the American economy and consumers, and we cannot really believe that people would do this. “And why would they want to?” he added. “We are saying that there is something that we should do for the people who suffered under the Nazis.”
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Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.