Racing to beat a Dec. 31 deadline, a Los Angeles-based Dutch journalist and a German lawyer are waging a two-man campaign to help Jews and other individuals file claims for property they lost during the Nazi era in what was to become East Germany.
Simon P. Hammelburg, West Coast bureau chief for Dutch Radio and Television, said that many Americans who may qualify for compensation for property they left behind or sold in haste at low prices are unaware that the German government has invited claims and that the New Year's Eve deadline is ironclad.
Hammelburg and a friend, German attorney Ingo Leetsch, decided to help file claims free. Using their own money, in late September they began to take out a couple of small announcements in two Jewish newspapers in Southern California.
"We thought if we can help one or two people before year's end, we could pop a bottle of champagne and celebrate for them," Hammelburg said.
The claim filing was also "something positive" they could do as commemorations of Kristallnacht--the November night in 1938 when the Holocaust began--were being held, Hammelburg said.
During the 1950s and '60s, West Germany compensated former property holders, then closed its files. After reunification of the two Germanys, the government committed itself to similar reimbursement for property in East Germany. Claims for homes and other real estate, businesses, personal belongings, bank accounts and stock left behind or sold after April 1, 1933, are being accepted, Hammzlburg said.
He has received 400 calls from all over the United States and is helping to process 100 claims.
One man who contacted Hammelburg is trying to claim the glass factory once owned by his uncle, who was killed by the Nazis; another is seeking his family's farm. A woman filed for compensation for a department store and house owned by her parents. A tailor filed for the sewing machine and personal belongings he was forced to leave in a rented apartment.
Hammelburg shapes the stories of personal tragedies into a short, workable format that includes a brief story of the lost property and the names of the relatives involved.
The 40-year-old Hammelburg's parents went into hiding in Holland and are now the sole survivors of what had been a very large family. Nevertheless, the journalist said he does not consider his campaign a personal matter.
"Each year I take on a project," he said. Last year, working with the Israeli ambassador to Holland and 1,200 volunteers, he put together a music video of Dutch, Hebrew and English songs that was sent to Israel as a morale-booster during Operation Desert Storm. He said the video "was a hit all over Europe" and proceeds from European sales helped rebuild Israeli apartments destroyed by Scud missiles.
He and Leetsch launched the claim-filing project because "we thought that now would be the right time to do something positive, with . . . all the neo-Nazi activities in Germany."
Hammelburg says anyone who lost property should contact him at (310) 438-4316.