Nazi-Era Karstadt Property Claim Goes to Court

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Roel R.
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Lid geworden op: 21 sep 2003, 01:50
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Nazi-Era Karstadt Property Claim Goes to Court

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BERLIN (Reuters) - A Berlin court is expected to rule on Friday on one of the largest unsettled Jewish claims from the Holocaust -- the Wertheim family's quest to recover a fortune in properties it was forced to sell under the Nazis.

The family, represented by 72-year-old New Jersey grandmother Barbara Principe, is believed to be seeking a total of about 145 million euros ($191.6 million) in damages from German retailer KarstadtQuelle (KARG.DE: Quote, Profile, Research) , which now owns part of the disputed real estate.

Principe alleges in a suit that German department store chain Hertie -- later acquired by Karstadt -- committed fraud in 1951 when it convinced her father and his brother to relinquish claims to the property.

"KarstadtQuelle knew exactly what they were getting into when they invested in the company," Principe said on Thursday, standing near the site on Potsdamer Platz where her family's flagship Wertheim store once stood.

Karstadt maintains it is the land's rightful owner and says it owes the Wertheims nothing.

"I am convinced that we will come out victorious in this case and I am convinced that Karstadt will never have to pay damages in the reported amounts," said spokesman Joerg Howe.

On Friday, the court is due to rule on a 20-million euro section of property that is now part of a Karstadt store in central Berlin. The Wertheim family believes the ruling could set a precedent for other disputed Karstadt-owned real estate.

Six other former Wertheim properties, owned mostly by the German government, are the object of settlement talks.

FORCED TO SELL

The Wertheims owned retail stores and other holdings in the German capital, including property that was later the site of the bunker where Hitler committed suicide in 1945.

But in 1938, the family was forced to sell all its shares to a non-Jewish consortium and in 1939 Principe's father, Guenther, fled Germany, changing his name from Wertheim to Wortham

In the early 1950s, the suit alleges, Guenther and his brother were told by a lawyer involved in the Hertie deal that the future of the business was doubtful because much of it had been expropriated by the Soviets in East Berlin.
They agreed to drop the claims for $5,100 -- a sum the plaintiffs say represented only four percent of their value.

Last May, a U.S. district court dismissed the Wertheim case on the grounds it did not have jurisdiction. But the judge said evidence suggested the family had been defrauded by previous owners of its assets.

The case has attracted additional interest because of the recent financial troubles of Karstadt, a household name in Germany that first set up shop in the 1880s.

Slow to respond to a prolonged consumer spending slump in Germany, Europe's biggest department store operator has seen its losses balloon and sales decline. In September, it unveiled a major restructuring plan that calls for the sale of 77 of its 180 stores.

"Regardless of the ruling in this case, the financial solidity of Karstadt ... will not be in danger."
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