Survivors sue German company over stolen jewelry, gold teeth

WHIPPANY, N.J. — Michal Schonberger will never forget when the Nazis deported his family to Auschwitz, singled out his father and — without anesthesia — ripped the gold-filled teeth out of his mouth.

Now 69 and a resident of Queens, N.Y., Schonberger was forced to watch the torture just four months after he became a bar mitzvah.

His father ended up in the gas chamber.

Schonberger is a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed against both Degussa AG, a German manufacturer of precious metals, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, and its New Jersey subsidiary, Degussa Corporation. The suit was filed in late August in U.S. District Court in Newark.

The suit alleges that Degussa AG, a 125-year-old company, allowed gold and other precious metals that were stolen from plaintiffs, their relatives and other Holocaust victims to finance the Nazi war machine.

The plaintiffs are seeking unlimited damages for, among other items, restitution of their property.

"The Nazis needed money. They needed hard currency," plaintiff attorney Edward Fagan said, adding that Degussa showed the Nazis how to convert watches, glasses, jewelry and gold fillings to valuable metals.

According to the lawsuit, "Evidence of Degussa's wrongdoing has only recently come to light through the recent declassification and disclosure of archived documents and the subsequent reports of historical commissions in the United States, Germany and elsewhere. The report commissioned by Deutsche Bank, reconstructing its World War II transactions, specifically recognizes Degussa's independent role as an active accomplice in perpetrating the financial crimes and human rights violations of the Nazi Regime."

In June 1997, Degussa AG acknowledged on its official Web site that during Nazi rule, "Jewish citizens in Germany and the occupied neighbouring countries were forced to relinquish gold, silver and other precious metals. Most of the materials — plate silver, jewelry, old silver and silver and gold fragments — was refined at Degussa. As far as is known, the precious metals came from the Reichsbank and from state pawnbrokers."

Degussa also admitted in January to the acquisition and "aryanization" of Jewish-owned companies, the use of forced labor and to a holding interest in Degesch, which produced the infamous Zyklon-B gas used in the death camps. Degussa noted that it was hiring an American historian to further examine its wartime role.

Among the physical evidence that Fagan offered at a recent news conference were some 20 gold-filled teeth. Edith Pollack of New York City, supplied the teeth. Her father, Holocaust survivor Eugene Pollack, found them when he was forced to bury victims in Dachau.

Degussa Corp., which is based in Ridgefield Park, N.J., and also has an office in South Plainfield, has not been served with formal papers yet.

Dennis Taylor, Degussa's attorney, said the American office — incorporated in the United States in 1973 — is merely a subsidiary of its parent company, Degussa AG.

"It's like somebody trying to sue you [by] trying to sue your parents."

While Degussa AG did admit it was "under the control of the Nazi regime during the Second World War," Taylor said, the subsequent Nuremberg trials provided no basis to prosecute any Degussa official. In addition, the company worked with the World Jewish Congress in its efforts to investigate the Swiss banks issue last year.

Fagan isn't impressed with this argument.

"It was very common to be pressured," Fagan said of firms operating in Nazi Europe. Degussa, however, went beyond acquiescence and profited from its wartime business. The company, Fagan said, "was not under duress."