In the latest front of Holocaust-related litigation, a federal class-action suit was filed Wednesday on behalf of survivors of Nazi death camps, alleging that Bayer AG, the giant German-owned chemical and pharmaceutical company, participated in cruel medical experiments by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele.
The suit, filed by a group of lawyers already involved in a spate of other Holocaust-related litigation, alleges that Bayer "monitored and supervised those experiments, and used them as a form of research and development for its corporate benefit."
The suit would open a new front in the rapidly growing field of Holocaust-related lawsuits. Existing suits have alleged that companies profited indirectly from Nazi actions--banks that allegedly hid assets stolen from victims, for example. Other suits have alleged that major German companies, including Daimler-Chrysler, Volkswagen, BMW and Siemens, used slave labor drafted from concentration camps--something that Bayer has admitted.
But the current suit is the first to directly allege a company's active involvement in some of the Nazis' most horrifying war crimes.
At the time of his death in Brazil in 1979, Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death, was considered the worst Nazi war criminal to have evaded postwar trials.
Attempts to obtain comment from Bayer AG, which is headquartered in Germany and is the parent company of Bayer Corp., based in Pittsburgh, were unsuccessful.
On Tuesday, Bayer AG was among a group of a dozen German companies that said they would participate in a $1.7-billion fund to compensate individuals who had been used as slave labor and forced labor during World War II.
The plan was announced by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who said a primary role of the fund was "to counter lawsuits, particularly class-action lawsuits, and to remove the basis of the campaign being led against German industry and our country."
The announcement of the new suit, however, is yet another sign that Holocaust suits are unlikely to end any time soon. Indeed, the litigation is likely to go well "into the new millennium," said Michael Bayzler, a professor of international law at Whittier Law School, who has been studying the suits.
"The floodgates of litigation have opened," Bayzler said. The named plaintiff in the new suit, filed in federal court in Indiana, is Eva Mozes Kor, one of 1,500 sets of twins subjected to grotesque experiments at the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust.
The research on twins, which Mengele directed, was designed to investigate the effect of numerous bacteria, chemicals and viruses on the human body. The Nazis decided that the most precise way to conduct such research was to administer shots containing the substances under review to one twin and not the other--considered the so-called "control" in the experiment.
Frequently, the Nazis decided that to complete the research it was necessary to kill both twins so that doctors could conduct autopsies and then compare the differences between the two.
According to the suit, "Bayer provided toxic chemicals to the Nazis. . . . Some of those experiments involved injecting concentration camp inmates with toxic chemicals and germs known to cause diseases in order to test the effectiveness of various drugs manufactured by Bayer."
Moreover, the suit asserts that Bayer, which at the time was part of the giant IG Farben chemical conglomerate, bought concentration camp inmates from the Nazis for use in conducting its own experiments.
Indianapolis attorney Richard E. Shevitz, one of the lead lawyers in the case, said that archives found at Auschwitz after the war and academic research done since then provided information that is the undergirding of the case. In addition to Shevitz, lawyers on the case include Erwin B. Levin of Indianapolis, attorneys from New York, Washington, Chicago, Cambridge, Mass., and two from Los Angeles--Deborah M. Sturman and Barry A. Fisher.
Kor and her twin sister, Miriam, who were born in Transylvania in 1934, were 9 when they were brought to Auschwitz. They survived the death camp and were freed at the end of World War II in 1945. But Miriam died in Israel in 1993 after years of illness stemming from the experiments that were conducted on her. Kor founded an organization devoted to the 112 survivors of Mengele's deadly research.
"After 54 years, it is time that Bayer takes responsibility for their actions," Kor said in a telephone interview from her home in Terre Haute, Ind.
"That means they should give proper restitution, say they are sorry for what they have done and say they will never use another human being as a guinea pig."
According to the suit, post-World War II publications reported that Bayer participated in the experiments, "giving orders to [Nazi] SS Major Dr. Helmuth Vetter, who was associated with Bayer and who was stationed in several concentration camps. Dr. Vetter experimented in Auschwitz with medications . . . [that] were administered to healthy inmates who had first been rendered ill from infections that were intentionally administered through pills, powders, injections or enemas." Vetter was sentenced to death by an American military court in 1947 and executed in 1949.
The suit seeks damages for the harm inflicted upon the survivors and recovery of profits Bayer allegedly earned as a result of research it obtained from the death camp experiments.