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VW Setting Up Fund to Pay Nazi-Era Slave Laborers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With its announcement Friday of a $12-million Private Relief Fund, automotive giant Volkswagen became the first German company to accept a moral obligation to compensate Nazi-era slave laborers.

VW, Europe’s biggest car maker, cast its decision as a voluntary humanitarian gesture rather than a legal obligation, saying it was “morally called upon” to redress the wrongs of the company’s World War II forerunner.

Last month, Holocaust survivors filed two class-action suits in New York seeking back wages for wartime slave labor from some of Germany’s leading industrial giants, including VW, Siemens, Daimler-Benz and BMW.

“We are satisfied with this decision, as it should accelerate other out-of-court settlements” between German companies and their surviving wartime slaves, said Klaus von Muenchhausen, an academic in the city of Bremen who represents 150 Nazi victims with various claims against German firms.

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Von Muenchhausen has pressed and won claims in district courts in Bremen and Bonn on behalf of other slave laborers over the past two years. He contends that those cases established a legal precedent that companies that used workers enslaved by the Nazis are individually obliged to make restitution even though the German federal government has paid out 100 billion marks, or about $59 billion, in war reparations.

“Many companies have said they would pay if a general fund was created,” said Von Muenchhausen, arguing that out-of-court settlements are far preferable to lengthy lawsuits for the elderly and often impoverished victims.

But not all advocates of the wartime slave laborers were impressed by the VW program, which will be administered by a commercial accounting firm, KPMG.

VW is obliged to make public a complete list of those rounded up from Nazi death camps and forced to work without pay in appalling conditions, New York lawyer Edward Fagan told ZDF television, contending that VW “knows precisely who, when, where and for how long” it used Nazi prisoners, mostly Jews, to keep its war machinery in gear.

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As many as 20,000 prisoners were put to work at VW during the war years.

Although VW was founded in 1938 with a mission from Adolf Hitler to create a “people’s car"--Volkswagen--its factories churned out grenade launchers, land mines and V1 rockets during wartime.

Details of how potential recipients can apply for relief funds will be made public in the next few weeks, and first payments are planned before the end of the year, VW spokesman Klaus Kocks said in a statement from the auto giant’s headquarters in Wolfsburg.

Any former slave worker at VW is eligible, he said, regardless of citizenship or national origin.

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While Nazi victims in the West have been compensated by previous government reparations programs, many of those who survived enslavement or detention in concentration camps in Eastern Europe were excluded because they fell under Communist dictatorships after the war. Only since the fall of the Iron Curtain less than a decade ago have East European Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and others targeted by the Nazis been able to seek compensation.


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