A German court ruled on Friday that the descendants of a Jewish department store dynasty were entitled to up to €20 million ($26.2 million) in compensation, dealing a blow to retail giant KarstadtQuelle.
The Wertheim family claims central Berlin properties worth millions
The ruling is the latest step in a long-running dispute over real estate seized by the Nazis in Berlin in the 1930s now valued at hundreds of millions of euros. The Berlin administrative court upheld a decision by the German government in 2001 to award the proceeds from the sale of property formerly owned by the Wertheim family to the Frankfurt-based Jewish Claims Conference, which is working to recover the family's assets.
KarstadtQuelle, Germany's largest department store operator, which acquired the Wertheim business in 1994, said it would take its case to the federal administrative court to seek permission to appeal against the judgment. The company maintains it cannot be held liable for what happened under the Nazis.
The two sites in question on Berlin's Leipziger Strasse were once home to offices of the Wertheim store chain but the Nazis took them over in 1933 as part of their policy to seize Jewish businesses. After the war, however, the properties became part of communist East Berlin, putting any claims to them on hold until after German reunification, in 1990.
Further claims pending
Gideon Taylor of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims
Gideon Taylor (photo), Jewish Claims Conference executive vice president, welcomed the ruling.
"We hope that, with other cases pending, Karstadt will finally do the right thing and acknowledge the moral and financial claim on these properties," he said in a statement. "This would clear the way for the Wertheim family's stolen assets to be returned even sooner and for justice to finally be done."
The JCC represents Wertheim heirs, many of whom now live in the United States. Barbara Principe (photo), a 72-year old New Jersey grandmother and the oldest living heir, lauded the decision.
Barbara Principe, Wertheim family spokeswoman
"This is a great day for our family," she said. "It's the victims and not the big company who were robbed."
The ruling in the test case has implications for another contested site on Berlin's prime-location Potsdamer Platz, which is now home to a Ritz Carlton hotel and a cluster of high-rise plush office buildings. The heirs have contested ownership of seven central Berlin properties, including real estate where Germany built offices for the federal parliament. The claims are expected to reach a total of €400 million ($525 million).