NEW YORK - Holocaust survivors are expanding the scope of their demands for wartime reparations by charging in two lawsuits that at least a dozen German or Austrian manufacturers, including automakers, profited through the use of slave labor.
Both suits seek compensatory and punitive damages on behalf of thousands of Nazi victims who, it is alleged, were subjected to inhumane treatment while forced to work without compensation during World War II.
The lawsuits follow the recent $1.25 billion settlement of Swiss bank claims and a $100 million settlement of insurance claims with Assicurazioni Generali SpA of Italy. While many Holocaust victims' insurance claims are still being litigated, progress is also being made in establishing an international commission to resolve them.
The suits seeking compensation for slave labor stem from European court action. According to court papers, plaintiffs' legal right to seek compensation for slave labor was deferred by the London Debt Agreement of 1953 until German courts lifted the moratorium in November 1997.
One slave labor lawsuit was filed by 16 Holocaust survivors late last month in the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The suit names at least 10 companies with recognizable product names, including BMW, Daimler-Benz, Audi, Volkswagen and Krupp.
The other suit, filed by two Holocaust survivors late last month in US District Court in New Jersey, names only Volkswagen AG and Volkswagen of America Inc., the automaker's US subsidiary in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
The plaintiffs contend that some manufacturers' actions were voluntary. Spokesmen for BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen say the Nazis required most Germany companies to use forced labor.
Manufacturers regret the inhumanity of that era, and they have funded research, programs and humanitarian relief efforts as a result of it, spokesmen say.
For example, Volkswagen recently announced it will be the first German company to establish a private fund to benefit people forced to work at the factory during 1944 and 1945.
It's a German government problem, said a spokesman for BMW of North America. 'We have always maintained that the German government should take responsibility for this.'
The German government has paid out about $56 billion in war-related compensation thus far, he said. If the government refuses to address the issue, then German industry should establish a centralized fund to compensate forced workers, he said.
In related action, four concentration camp survivors late last month filed a suit in the US District Court in New Jersey charging that Degussa AG of Frankfurt, Germany, and Degussa Corp., its New Jersey subsidiary, should be held accountable for their wartime activities. The lawsuit alleges that the company smelted looted gold - including dental fillings. They are also accused of manufacturing gas used in gas chambers, supplying bomb technology and buying Jewish-owned businesses at artificially low prices.
A Degussa representative said it is awaiting a copy of the complaint but otherwise declined comment.
Should the manufacturers be found liable for using slave labor, it is unlikely any defendant would have insurance for such action.
'I can't imagine that there would be insurance coverage for this,' said Allyn Z. Lite, a plaintiff's attorney in the New Jersey slave-labor case.
However, another observer is less certain about the coverage issue. 'The situation is unprecedented, and the availability of coverage is unknown,' said Arthur Flitner, of the Insurance Institute of America in Pennsylvania. 'There are no easy answers to this.'