Bahn hires law firm to fight off US claims for compensation by Nazi
death camp survivors
The German railway company Deutsche Bahn has engaged a New York law firm to fight
off compensation claims that it might face under proposed legislation
enabling Holocaust victims and their relatives to sue for damages
in US courts.
The state-owned network is the main successor to the Nazi-run Deutsche Reichsbahn
which, along with other railways in German-occupied Europe, deported
millions of Jews to death camps during the Second World War.
Deutsche Bahn has in the past compensated Holocaust
victims under extensive German government reparations to survivors.
The German Foundation Agreement reached with the US in 2000 was considered
to have conclusively resolved all outstanding claims against Germany.
But under the laws proposed by the US Holocaust Rail Justice Act,
which is now before Congress, Deutsche Bahn fears it could face fresh
compensation claims in US courts.
Efraim Zuroff, of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem,
said: "To the best of my knowledge, no railroad company has ever been forced to compensate
deportees. The cardinal question is the degree of independence which
each railway company had in dealing with the deportations of the
Deutsche Bahn has been highly guarded about Holocaust
issues in the past. In 2006, it refused to allow a French exhibition
about the role of trains in death camp deportations to be shown at
German stations. Last year, a group of eastern European victims of
the Nazis announced plans to file a suit against the company in an
Contacted by Der Spiegel magazine yesterday, Deutsche
Bahn said it had recruited lawyers and PR advisers to monitor the
situation in America, but refused to comment further. It is reported
to have contracted the New York PR company Strategy XXI Partners
to develop a "communications plan related to Holocaust asset issues". The German broadcaster Deutsche Welle said it had also engaged the New York
legal firm White and Case to deal with "World War II-related issues".
The US law is specifically designed to gain compensation
from the French rail group SNCF, but legal experts say it could also
apply to other European networks including Deutsche Bahn.
Charles Schumer, a US Senator who is sponsoring the
Bill, said that of the 76,000 Jews, resistance fighters and US prisoners
deported to Nazi camps by SNCF, only 3 per cent survived.
Previous US attempts to claim against SNCF failed
because of legal complications which made it difficult to sue other
countries and their government-owned entities in American courts.
However, the Holocaust Rail Justice Act would sweep away such restrictions
and allow non-American Holocaust survivors to sue European rail firms.
But whether the law would entitle victims to make
fresh claims against Deutsche Bahn is still open to debate. Harriet
Tamen, a New York lawyer representing 600 Holocaust survivors in
a case against SNCF, said the Bill applied only to the French network. "We do not believe this law, once passed, will affect any other railroad in Europe," she said.
However, Richard Weisberg, director of Holocaust and
human rights studies at New York's Yeshiva University, said it was
clear the law could be applied to other European rail operators which
took part in the Holocaust.