Slave labor payments expected soon

BERLIN, May 23 (JTA) — German firms have dropped their opposition to releasing funds for Nazi-era slave and forced laborers.

Industry representatives announced Tuesday that they are now satisfied with the degree of protection from future lawsuits provided by American courts.

The firms had been unwilling to release their half of the $5 billion fund until their lawyers could ensure “legal closure” — that is, a promise that no more lawsuits relating to the Nazi era will be filed.

A U.S. appeals court decision last week prompted the belief that such closure has been achieved.

The firms’ announcement paves the way for the German Parliament to approve release of the funds. Parliament is slated to deal with the issue on May 30.

Manfred Gentz, president of DaimlerChrysler and director of the German Industry Foundation, “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future,” said Tuesday that he expected the funds to be available shortly, now that the last U.S. lawsuits against German companies have been dismissed.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder greeted Tuesday’s announcement with relief and thanked all those who made it possible “to close this painful chapter of German history.”

The announcement followed days of intensifying pressure from survivor representatives, German politicians and even from within the industry foundation’s own ranks.

Critics had said that, thanks to the May 17 U.S. appeals court ruling, sufficient legal protection had been achieved — and the industry foundation should acknowledge this.

In its ruling the court removed all conditions from a lower court judge’s previous dismissal of lawsuits against German banks.

The appeals court ruled last week that Judge Shirley Wohl Kram had overstepped her authority in trying to force the German compensation fund to cover claims out of Austria.

German politicians and survivor representatives alike hailed the May 17 U.S. appeals court decision.

Otto Lambsdorff, the German government’s chief negotiator for the fund, called the ruling “superb.”

On Monday, Kram dismissed one of the last few remaining lawsuits.

“It is my hope that payments begin immediately,” she said.

With the new cooperative mood on the part of the Industry Foundation and the likely Parliament approval May 30, payments to survivors may begin within a few weeks.

Individuals and groups representing the laborers have called for the money to be distributed quickly.

The industry decision to drop their resistance may have been influenced by last-minute pressure from 43 of the 6,000 German companies that contributed to the fund.

In an open letter to Schroeder last week, the firms urged the chancellor to pay the aging survivors before they die.

In their letter, they said 200 survivors die each day.

The German government and a group of German businesses agreed in February 1999 to create the $5.2 billion fund to compensate the laborers.

Under the terms of an agreement reached in March 2000, some 240,000 slave laborers — about 140,000 of whom are Jewish — would receive up to $7,500 each. More than 1 million forced laborers would get up to $2,500 each.

People whose property was looted by the Nazis, who were victims of Nazi medical experiments or who hold unpaid Holocaust-era insurance policies also may claim payments.

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