Former Nazi slave laborers lose bid for compensation

FRANKFURT — A German court has upheld its government's policy of rejecting compensation claims by former Nazi slave laborers.

Last week's ruling by a Bonn district court was a defeat for the thousands of Holocaust survivors who worked under the Nazis' forced-labor system.

The judges ruled that German law already provides compensation to victims of Nazi persecution, but excludes the payment of wages to victims of forced labor.

Jewish groups and opposition politicians in Germany had been hoping that a favorable court ruling would help them reverse the German government's compensation policies.

German officials are currently negotiating with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany regarding compensation payments to Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe.

Germany has paid more than $54 billion in compensation to Holocaust survivors since World War II.

However, those living in Soviet-bloc countries were unable to apply for compensation during the Cold War, and communist East Germany refused to make any payments.

Jewish organizations estimate there are between 15,000 and 40,000 Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe who have never received compensation.

For the past five years, a group of former slave laborers has been embroiled in legal proceedings in an attempt to receive back pay for involuntary labor.

The 21 women, who were forced to work at German chemical and munitions factories near Auschwitz, brought a class-action suit to try to change government policy.

The court ruled that only one of the 21 plaintiffs was entitled to a one-time compensation payment of about $8,500, plus interest.

The court ordered the payment for the Polish-born woman because she had been unable to request German restitution. She had lived behind the Iron Curtain when an application deadline expired.

She received the payment for her imprisonment at Auschwitz, not for wages as a slave worker.

The 20 other plaintiffs already had received restitution as victims of Nazi persecution. The court ruled this restitution was sufficient under German law.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they would appeal the ruling.

German companies that used forced labor generally paid their salaries to the Nazi SS, which kept the money.

Most of those companies — including German industry giants such as Volkswagen, Daimler-Benz and Siemens — are still in business. None of them has made more than token payments to their former slave laborers.

The companies have argued that they paid the Nazi SS for the forced laborers they employed and that any further compensation should come from the government.

The Bonn court's ruling did not come as a surprise.

In a statement issued in September, before they began deliberations on the case, the judges said they believed an issue of such importance should be decided by lawmakers, not by judges.

They expressed the hope that negotiations between the Bonn government and the Claims Conference on additional restitution payments would be completed before the court ruled on the case.

In August, the German government and officials of the Claims Conference announced the establishment of a joint commission to recommend a compromise.

The commission is expected to make its proposals before the end of the year.