Berlin Retailers’ Heirs To Get Restitution

By Anthony Weiss

Published December 09, 2005, issue of December 09, 2005.
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In one of the largest Holocaust restitution cases in German history, the heirs of the Wertheim family, one of prewar Germany’s largest retailers, stand to receive more than $100 million in property looted by the Nazis. The development follows a decision by the current owner, retail conglomerate KarstadtQuelle AG, to drop its claims to three properties in Berlin.

One property, on Leipziger Platz in central Berlin, is thought to be the most valuable piece of Holocaust-era property ever restituted. Sources close to the case estimate that this property alone could be worth between $60 million and $120 million.

For Barbara Principe, one of the primary heirs, KarstadtQuelle’s decision is a sign of long-overdue justice for her family.

“That’s what this whole thing is about, as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “It’s about what was done to my father and the whole Wertheim family.”

KarstadtQuelle’s withdrawal of the claims for these properties concludes a 13-year legal battle by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the legally designated representative of Jewish victims of the Nazis. Other former Wertheim properties remain in dispute. The Claims Conference has been working with the Wertheim heirs and will distribute the proceeds among them. KarstadtQuelle’s decision, announced December 1, came after the company lost a similar appeal in October on a fourth property.

Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, called KarstadtQuelle’s decision “tremendously important.” Taylor said, “These properties, and the history of the Wertheim family, are emblematic of prewar German Jewry.”

The Wertheim family, led by Franz, Wilhelm and Georg Wertheim, owned the Wertheim department store, one of the largest in Berlin, before the Holocaust. The Leipziger Platz property, now vacant, was once the site of their flagship store, which was nicknamed “the Cathedral.” Situated between the Prussian Palace (which under the Nazis became the official residence of Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering) and the Reichschancellery, the store placed the Wertheim family at the center of the changes that swept Germany in the 1930s. “Hitler and Goering literally woke up in the morning, staring at Wertheim,” said Gary Osen, the lawyer who represented Principe and several other Wertheim heirs.

The Wertheims also had made a practice of buying available land in the area, in order to forestall competitors from building a rival department store in the area. As a result, when Hitler expanded the Reichschancellery, he did so by acquiring Wertheim property. His bunker was constructed beneath what had been Wertheim family holdings. During the bombing of Berlin, the Allies, in an attempt to bomb the Reichschancellery and the Luftwaffe headquarters, bombed Wertheim instead. The Soviet Union destroyed the Reichschancellery when it invaded Berlin, and the property became an empty strip alongside the Berlin Wall.

The Wertheim department store was taken from the Wertheim family and “aryanized” in the 1930s. At the instruction of Nazi authorities, Georg Wertheim transferred 51% of the family stock to the name of his non-Jewish wife, Ursula, who was 30 years his junior. After his death at the age of 80, in 1939, she remarried the Wertheim corporation counsel, Arthur Lindgens, who took charge of the company.

The three Wertheim brothers all died of natural causes in Germany. Principe’s father, Gunther, escaped with his family to America in 1939. His brother, Fritz, attempted to cross on the ill-fated refugee ship St. Louis and was sent back to Europe. He later was liberated from Theresienstadt and joined his brother in the United States.

In 1951, Lindgens came to New York and told the brothers that their holdings were virtually worthless. Professing a spirit of old friendship, he offered them about $5,000 apiece. At the time, Principe recalls, Gunther was too sick to travel — “all due to nerves” — and he took Lindgens at his word. Gunther died at 52.

Unbeknown to the brothers, Lindgens had sold the family’s shares four days earlier. They had been sold to competitor Hertie (another formerly Jewish-owned department store that had been aryanized) for a much larger price. KarstadtQuelle bought Hertie in 1994.

The legal battle has centered on whether the legal successors to the Wertheim holdings were the company itself, now owned by KarstadtQuelle, or the Wertheim family stockholders. On this, the Claims Conference could speak with authority, as it had negotiated the 1992 provision touching on this matter.

The German courts supported the Claims Conference’s position. In its summary of a March 2005 decision, the Berlin Administrative Court wrote that the law “was not geared to who acquired the shares in the company concerned over the years. It wanted, rather, to connect to the fate of the Jewish shareholder who suffered damage during the Nazi era and award him or his heirs additional compensation.”

The German government was originally a party to the case, contesting the Wertheim family’s claim to the property.

Jörg Howe, a spokesman for KarstadtQuelle, said that, as a stock-listed company, KarstadtQuelle’s board had a legal obligation to contest the Wertheim family’s claims.

According to German law, the Claims Conference is the legal successor to all Jewish property in the former East Germany to which no claims were filed by 1992. That was the case with the Wertheim property, which the heirs did not claim until the late 1990s. In such cases, the Claims Conference distributes 80% of the restitution proceeds to the heirs and retains 20%, mostly for social welfare assistance to survivors. Osen said he expects that arrangement to apply in this instance, as well.

Principe, 72, and her nephew, Martin Wortham, stand to inherit about 15% of the restitution.

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