Gray Davis, Wiesenthal Center sue German companies

Gov. Gray Davis is teaming with the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Holocaust survivors to sue German banks and two American companies that allegedly exploited Jews during the Nazi era.

The representative suit, filed Wednesday in state Superior Court, prosecutes the companies under California's Unfair Competition Act, which allows a plaintiff to seek restitution on behalf of a wider public.

"Speed is of the importance," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate director of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "We are deep into negotiations with German companies and, frankly, we're hoping the suit will help further a quick and just settlement to get a few dollars" to Holocaust survivors.

Davis said in a statement that he is joining the lawsuit "to help maximize the just compensation due to victims of the Nazi war machine. Common decency demands that those who were made slaves by the hateful Nazi regime should be compensated for labor stolen from them."

The suit fingers several German companies and banks as well as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. for offenses such as using Jews as slave labor and confiscating Jewish bank accounts. California law states companies cannot engage in illegal acts to gain advantage over other companies.

"German banks looted and 'Aryanized' the assets of persons targeted for persecution by the Nazi Regime," the suit contends. "Additionally, hundreds of thousands of persons were enslaved or forced to labor for [the] Defendants under conditions inhumane under any standard."

Survivors as well as companies in competition with those named in the suit could receive restitution.

Southern California residents Charlotte Lenga, Pearl and Arman Lebovic, Joseph Steinschriber, Zoltan Klein, Eva Szekely and Marcel Baum — all of whom were interned in German concentration camps during World War II — are also plaintiffs in the suit.

In addition to Ford and General Motors, the other companies named are Deutsche Bank AG, Dresdner Bank AG, Commerzbank AG, Deutsche Lufthansa AG and VIAG.

The two firms — Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, and Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes and Lerach — filed the suit in San Francisco. Lieff, Cabraser is also involved in a similar case against French banks.

Cooper said he was pleased that Davis is backing Holocaust restitution.

"I applaud the governor for sending an extraordinarily powerful signal," he said. "We are putting on notice that if you want to do business in our state, you have to live up to a certain standard."