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Around the Jewish World Germany Drops Land Claims in Major Holocaust Restitution Case

November 19, 2003
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Heirs of a German Jewish family that once owned some of the most valuable real estate in Berlin are a big step closer to what they consider justice.

The German government announced Tuesday that it would relinquish its claim to properties that once belonged to the Wertheim family.

The announcement signified a “breakthrough,” but not the end of the story, for the former Wertheim properties in the former East Germany, said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

In fact, there are major hurdles to overcome before heirs receive just compensation or restitution of the vast and spectacular properties that once made up the Wertheim department store chain.

The most significant challenger is the Karstadt department store company, which claims to be the rightful post-war heir.

But the Claims Conference, and Gary Osen, a New Jersey-based lawyer for some of the heirs, disagree.

Heartened by the latest development, they say Karstadt should follow the lead of the German government and drop its claims to the properties.

“We really welcome what the German government has done,” Taylor told JTA in a telephone interview from New York. “We had spoken with the highest levels of the German government on this issue, and it really makes a tremendous difference. It throws the focus right onto Karstadt. We are urging Karstadt to do the right thing.”

Osen told JTA he regarded the announcement “as a very positive first step. But at the same time we obviously recognize that there are still many unresolved issues, and at the moment there is no clear path to an end result.”

Contacted by Reuters, a Karstadt spokesman declined to comment, saying only that the subject would be examined further. Karstadt still uses the Wertheim brand and wants the family to drop a lawsuit filed against it in New York as part of any settlement, the news agency reported.

The case is one of the last major unresolved property disputes in reunified Germany, and involves properties that today are in prime locations.

For example, visitors to the new Potsdamer Platz — a modern, if somewhat loud, new commercial complex in the area where the Berlin Wall once stood — see several large empty lots, apparently abandoned. One is used by a company that hawks rides in a hot-air balloon, which rises and descends over the site of a former Wertheim property.

There may be numerous property disputes in the former East Germany today, but this one is the most significant, Taylor said.

“The properties are unique, partly because of their value and partly because of their symbolism,” he said. “The name Wertheim is synonymous with pre-war German-Jewish life, and with life in Berlin in general.”

Osen, who represents about one-fifth of the Wertheim heirs, said in a telephone interview from New Jersey, “There are obviously thousands of still unresolved properties, but what makes Wertheim unusual is the sheer magnitude of the figures involved and the location of the property.”

“Wertheim owned tremendous amounts of land in the very center of Berlin, so the history of Wertheim and its property is a microcosm of the history of Berlin itself,” Osen said.

The wealthy family was forced to sell its property during the”Aryanization” process under the Third Reich. In addition, many prime properties were bombed during the war, as they were close to Nazi government buildings.

In 1951, the Karstadt company bought up the former Wertheim shares from heirs that had escaped Nazi Germany. The Communist government then nationalized the properties located in East Germany. Some remained part of the no-man’s land around the Berlin Wall.

Only one original building still stands.

After reunification, the Claims Conference applied for restitution of the property as the successor organization. The German Restitution Authority declared these claims valid, but both Karstadt and the German government contested the decision.

Members of the Wertheim family claim that Karstadt deliberately cheated them, paying some $5,000 for property that Karstadt claimed was worthless but knew was hugely valuable. The heirs thus dispute Karstadt’s claim to be the rightful successor.

The property is estimated to be worth several hundred million dollars today.

The latest announcement in the drawn-out battle helps “correct an indisputable Nazi injustice,” Karl Brozik, the Claims Conference’s German representative, told The Associated Press.

For those properties that are now released to the Claims Conference, the next step is to decide whether to sell them or build on them.

Whatever the decision, the proceeds go to the Claims Conference’s Goodwill Fund, which generally pays about 80 percent to heirs.

But the later injustices are still unresolved, Osen said.

“The letter from the German Finance Ministry falls short of acknowledging the historical wrongs perpetrated against the Wertheims,” Osen said.

One of the most recent injustices, he said, is that the government built its new Bundestag, or Parliament headquarters, on former Wertheim property without even acknowledging the history.

The new Bundestag is to open with great fanfare on Dec. 10, and members of the Wertheim family will be there, Osen said.

“They want to draw attention” to the fact that the government has not acknowledged “that the Bundestag was completed on land that was expropriated by the Nazis.”

Karstadt accepted money from the German government for the property after German unification.

The Wertheim family wants two things, Osen said.

“First, they want a public acknowledgment of the history of the land on which the Bundestag complex is built — and I think that is something the German government owes to itself as much as to the Wertheims,” he said. “Secondly, we want a public commitment form the German government that the law will be followed, and that they will pay just compensation in accordance with the law — nothing more and nothing less.”

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