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Volkswagen’s Decision Could Influence Other German Firms

July 9, 1998
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Volkswagen’s decision to establish a fund for Jewish slave laborers ups the ante on other German companies to make similar payments.

Just three weeks after the German car company rejected demands to compensate 30 Jewish slave laborers who had worked for the company during World War II, the auto manufacturer agreed this week to set up a fund.

According to a history financed by the company two years ago, Volkswagen employed 15,000 slave workers to help in the German war effort.

Hailing the move as a “bold step” and a “breath of fresh air,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said, “We now hold up VW as a corporate leader” in making amends to slave laborers.

Cooper noted that in 1995, Volkswagen led a campaign against a Japanese publishing company after one of its magazines published a Holocaust-denial article on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Klaus von Muenchhausen, the lawyer who had threatened a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the 30 laborers, all of whom were employed by the firm as teen-agers and now live in Israel, said he would pursue similar action against Varta, a battery company, and Hochtief, a construction company.

But whether these or other companies would follow the lead of VW, which has recently completed the acquisition of Rolls-Royce and is in the process of purchasing Lamborghini, an Italian car manufacturer, remains unclear.

“There’s no way this announcement is popular in the boardrooms of German and Austrian companies,” Cooper said.

Many of the estimated millions of slave laborers who worked for Volkswagen and other companies under the Nazi regime have died, and the issue of making payments before much more time elapses is crucial because of the survivors’ advanced age.

Volkswagen said it would provide details about the fund in September.

The German government made compensation payments to slave laborers for their imprisonment and for health damages, but has refused to pay back wages. German firms have generally refused to pay back wages, saying that these were the government’s responsibility.

In May, the Karl Diehl armament company agreed, under political pressure, to pay $552 per month in back wages to each slave laborer.

While it was unclear how much money Volkswagen would pay the laborers, von Muenchhausen was quoted as saying his clients would seek $2,200 for each month worked.

Volkswagen gave no indication of why it reversed course. A statement released by the company said the decision was “in recognition of its historical and moral obligations” to the slave laborers.

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