Siemens follows lead of VW in initiating slave laborers fund

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FRANKFURT — Another German firm has reversed course and agreed to establish a fund for slave laborers it employed during World War II.

The announcement by the electronics giant Siemens of an $11.9 million fund to provide the humanitarian aid came just a year after the company rejected responsibility for compensation payments for the laborers.

Siemens has not yet indicated whether the money will be dispersed in one-time payments or in regular installments, but says it wants to provide quick and unbureaucratic help to needy victims forced to work at its plants during World War II.

The fund will be administered by individuals and organizations not connected to Siemens.

Earlier this month, Volkswagen announced a similar fund that also will be managed by leading public figures. Both companies emphasize they have no legal obligation to make compensation but acknowledge their moral responsibility.

In August, a number of former slave laborers filed a class-action lawsuit in New York against leading German companies, including Siemens and Volkswagen, to press compensation demands.

In a news release Wednesday, Siemens said it "continues to express its deepest regret for what occurred in those years," pointing out that Siemens voluntarily gave a multimillion-dollar payment to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany in the 1960s.

According to company information, at least 50,000 workers were forced to work for Siemens during the war. The Berlin-based organization Action Reconciliation, which works to assist those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, estimates that one-third of the employees in 1943 were slave laborers, prisoners of war or concentration camp inmates.

Siemens claims that it was forced by the Nazi government to employ slave labor in order to fulfill the regime's wartime production goals. After the war started, the work force in Germany was greatly reduced through military conscription. The Nazi government tried to maintain production by forcing millions of eastern Europeans and concentration camp inmates to work under often inhumane conditions in factories.

During celebrations for its 150th anniversary last year, Siemens rejected compensation demands for its former forced laborers, claiming the problem could not be solved with money from individual firms. Until recently, German companies have refused to pay compensation to their former slave laborers, arguing that the issue was a political problem that could only be solved by the government.

The government in Bonn also pushed the issue aside until recently, claiming it had already been settled through Germany's large financial donations to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s.

However, the international attention focused on the Swiss gold controversy and the agreement of Swiss banks to pay compensation to Holocaust victims have stepped up pressure on German firms to do likewise.

A recent attempt by about 15 German companies to set up a joint compensation fund for former slave laborers failed.