BERLIN Heirs of Germany’s Wertheim family have received one of the largest compensation payments to ever result from Holocaust-related restitution.
In a settlement announced March 30 in Dusseldorf, the KarstadtQuelle corporation agreed to pay the Claims Conference $117.5 million (88 million euros) for the last remaining major pieces of property formerly belonging to the family 6′ years after the end of World War II.
The Claims Conference negotiated the settlement in months of secret meetings.
Descendants of the Wertheim family stand in front of a store their family owned before World War II, during a ‘003 trip to Berlin. Barbara Principe stands in front. Courtesy of Osen & Associate
Speaking for some 50 members of her family, Wertheim heir Barbara Principe of Newfield, N.J., said she and her family were "glad that we have finally reached this agreement with KarstadtQuelle AG to end the legal battle over Wertheim."
Principe had been seeking compensation, with the help of Oradell attorney Gary Osen, since the 1990s. A specialist in claims related to the Holocaust, he helped document the family’s claim to the land.
In an e-mail to The Jewish Standard from Israel this week, Osen wrote, "The Wertheim family is gratified by the settlement after more than 60 years. From a legal standpoint, the victory is complete, but for the family, the end of the battle is still bittersweet. Vindication has been mixed with sadness because the past can’t be unmade."
Principe was born in Germany. Her father, Gunther Wertheim, and uncle, Fritz, were forced to surrender their holdings to the Nazis because of the "Aryanization" laws, which did not permit Jews to own businesses.
In words widely cited in the German press, Principe praised the decision by KarstadtQuelle AG and thanked the Claims Conference currently under director Roman Haller for its years of efforts.
In particular, Principe thanked former German Interior Minister Gerhart Baum and journalist Henryk Broder, who had supported her request last September for a personal meeting with KarstadtQuelle company head Thomas Middelhoff. The firm had rejected the request as a pressure tactic.
But ultimately Middelhoff met with Haller in private talks mediated by former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Now Middelhoff is calling the settlement "our just responsibility vis-?-vis history."
"It doesn’t change the past but it’s nice to see that a grandmother from New Jersey can take on a major corporation and win when justice is on her side," said Jim Haggerty of PR Consulting Group in New York last week, speaking for Osen & Associate.
While the terms of the settlement remain confidential, Haggerty said the case has tremendous impact.
"It’s significant to see a major German corporation facing these important issues [of Holocaust reparations]," he added.
As part of the settlement, KarstadtQuelle reportedly will withdraw claims on 50 other Wertheim properties in Berlin and the former East German state of Brandenburg. The Claims Conference will administer the settlement.
Some funds will go toward Claims Conference-funded programs for Holocaust survivors; the rest will go to the Wertheim heirs.
The land in question had belonged to the Wertheim family before the Holocaust, along with multiple other properties. When they opened a small shop in 1875, Ida and Abraham Wertheim planted the seed for one of Germany’s largest department store chains, but lost their property after they fled Nazi persecution in 1939.
The major piece of property covered by the settlement is located within the so-called Lenne Triangle in former East Berlin. In 1988, a land swap between East and West Germany made the triangle part of West Germany.
Though the German government had designated the Claims Conference the successor to unclaimed former Jewish property in the former East Germany, it was not clear whether the Lenne Triangle was covered by this legislation because it was now in West Germany, where restitution legislation had expired.
The Claims Conference had been assigned by Germany to represent the interests of Jews whose property was confiscated by the Nazis or forcibly sold at undervalued prices.
But the German government had given Karstadt the property in 1991, before its legal status had been established. In ‘000, Karstadt sold the property to billionaire investor Otto Beisheim, who built the Ritz Carlton Hotel on the site. Litigation regarding the properties began almost immediately. In ‘004, a federal court ruled that other land in the Lenne Triangle should have been awarded to the Claims Conference.
Following a series of court rulings in favor of the Claims Conference, Karstadt withdrew its claims to several Wertheim properties in December ‘005.
In the fall of ‘006, the Restitution Authority ruled that several sites, including the Besheim Center, must be turned over to the Claims Conference. The current decision affirms that ruling. Claims Conference Executive Vice President Gideon Taylor said the settlement brings to a close one of the largest and most complicated Holocaust restitution cases taken by the Claims Conference.
"It is a symbolic recognition of a painful chapter in the history of the Jews of Nazi-era Germany," he said.
Osen recalled, "When the Wertheim family gathered in Berlin for the first time in more than 60 years back in December of ‘003, I gave a toast at the reunion dinner that I hope has come to pass in this case. It was a quotation from a famous German play that translates, ‘Hate can never be the last word.’"
The Jewish Standard contributed to this report.