BERLIN—A German court ruled Friday that the heirs of a Jewish family that once owned the country's best known department store must be compensated for property they lost when the Nazi government was in power seven decades ago.
In making the ruling, the court dismissed a claim to the property by KarstadtQuelle, one of Europe's largest retailing chains, which in 1994 purchased companies once owned by the Wertheim family.
The ruling affects only one piece of land worth a relatively modest sum of $22 million. But it eventually could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to the heirs, both from the German government and from KarstadtQuelle. Other disputed properties include a Ritz-Carlton Hotel complex and an office building used by members of Germany's parliament.
"This is a very important step towards justice, an important moment," said Matthias Druba, a Berlin attorney who represented the claimants in the case. "Worst case scenario now, we're six months to a year from a final decision (on all the properties). But I think this ruling makes it clear we will be victorious, and I hope it won't take so long."
"Sometimes I've felt like they've stolen my history," said Barbara Principe, 72, of Newfield, N.J., whose grandfather and great-uncles owned Wertheim, once Berlin's most prominent department store. "Now I feel like I got a little bit of it back."
There are 45,000 Nazi reparations cases still pending in Germany, but the Wertheim case is considered the most complicated and symbolically important, both because of the value of the properties involved and the prominence of the Wertheims in Berlin life when Adolf Hitler came to power.
The land involved in Friday's ruling sits near Potsdamer Platz, a huge commercial and entertainment center that sprouted in an area that used to be no-man's land between East and West Berlin before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
The German government owns the land, but it's claimed by Wertheim heirs and by KarstadtQuelle.
KarstadtQuelle also operates a store bearing the Wertheim name on Kurfuerstendamm Street, Berlin's main commercial boulevard.
The New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany filed the claim for restitution on behalf of the Wertheim heirs, including Principe, who fled Germany when she was 6. She grew up on a New Jersey chicken farm and later worked on an assembly line.
Principe's grandfather, Franz Wertheim, was one of three brothers who signed over all their properties to a family legal adviser in the late 1930s. Some family members then died in concentration camps; others fled.
Principe's father and uncle filed a claim for the family land after the war, but then sold their rights to the legal adviser for $24,500 after he convinced them the land was virtually worthless since most of it was in Soviet-controlled East Berlin.
The adviser then sold the Wertheim properties to another company, which continued to operate Wertheim stores in West Germany and held onto other properties in East Germany. The East German government eventually leveled what had been the main Wertheim's store to create a no-man's land along the Berlin Wall.
The current case was complicated when KarstadtQuelle purchased the remnants of the Wertheim chain in 1994 and later sold some of the property, including land that became a $1.5 billion real estate development with a Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
KarstadtQuelle officials maintained that they bought the Wertheim property legally and shouldn't have to share profits with Wertheim heirs. They've also laid claim to some of the disputed Wertheim properties, saying they were part of the 1994 deal, including the piece affected by Friday's ruling.
KarstadtQuelle officials didn't return phone calls for comment Friday afternoon, but reports in the German media indicate they're expected to appeal the decision.
Druba said the court agreed with the family's claim that they were defrauded of their land. He said no money is expected to reach Wertheim heirs, however, until KarstadtQuelle relinquishes its claim
"I would hope that Karstadt's would see the sense in making compensation available while the last family member who actually fled the Nazis still survives," he said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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