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Land Battle Roils E. German Suburb

December 16, 1998

TELTOW, Germany (AP) _ Seehof, in a suburb of Berlin, is a quiet neighborhood of well-tended homes, bordered by parks, a nature preserve and a waterway.

Yet the calm belies a storm that has surrounded Seehof since German reunification in 1990.

Seehof’s 500 or so houses were built on a farm once owned by one of Berlin’s wealthiest families, the Saberskys. They fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s because they were Jewish, ending up in the United States and elsewhere.

For decades, the family could not seek restitution because the land, located in the suburb of Teltow, was in communist East Germany. Now with the Berlin Wall gone and Teltow looking like prime real estate, the heirs want to regain title to the 208 acres, worth at least $170 million.

The prospect frightens many of the 1,500 people who have lived in Seehof for decades. With so much at stake, the battle has become increasingly bitter, with accusations of anti-Semitism, greed and dishonest politics.

Although several decisions have gone against them, the family is pushing ahead. Their latest appeal is to be heard today by the Federal Administrative Court in Berlin.

``I don’t shy away from a fight,″ says one American descendant, Peter Sonnenthal, a former lawyer for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission who helped bring down Wall Street titans Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky.

Sonnethal, 44, concedes he stands to make a lot of money but insists he does not intend to force inhabitants from their homes.

``We’re fighting a decision that says my family wasn’t persecuted,″ he says. ``But the truth is this property was owned by my family and stolen by the Nazis and that’s what must be addressed.″

The family has won small victories, getting three parcels back in 1995, including the grand, three-story villa where Sonnenthal’s grandfather, Albert Sabersky, once lived.

The villa quickly sold for $4.8 million. Sonnenthal and his sister received half as sole heirs to Albert Sabersky; the rest was divided among 16 other heirs.

Still, the state office charged with deciding restitution claims denied the bulk of their claim. Deputy director Josefine Ewers says the Saberskys ``without a question″ were persecuted by the Nazis _ but not when it came to selling their farm.

Both sides have spent years searching old archives, digging out maps, aerial photos and records. The case hinges on whether the land was used as a farm or intended for development, whether the Saberskys sold under pressure and what happened to the money.

The Saberskys, mainly bankers and grain traders, bought Seehof in 1878. They maintained it as a farm but drew up plans to develop a strip along the water where other wealthy Berliners had started building country homes.

But when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and started banning Jews from certain professions _ including farming _ the family hired a Nazi real-estate broker to begin selling all of Seehof.

``They knew what was coming,″ Sonnenthal says. ``They sold it off as fast as they could.″

The family claims the Saberskys sold the farm under pressure for about half its market value, and that the broker charged them an exorbitant commission _ reaching 50 percent after the 1938 anti-Jewish pogram known as Kristallnacht.

They also say the Nazis confiscated the proceeds, and the family never saw the money.

Ewers, of the restitution office, says records show the family was not really farming the land but instead preparing it for development with intent to sell. If the family was not farming, she argues, it would not have been under pressure from the Nazis’ banning the profession for Jews.

She says the broker’s commission was reasonable considering all they asked him to do. She also disputes Sonnethal’s claim that the family never saw any money from its financial agent, noting it used the same man in the 1950s.

Sonnenthal says Ewers and the court acted under political pressure to protect homeowners and voters. She denies it.

Charges that the family is only after money reflect shades of anti-Semitism, he says, as do the swastikas that appeared in the neighborhood during the seven-year court battle.

He has offered to drop claims to any home if the occupant pays $6,000 to $9,000 _ about 10 percent of the market value.

``As a Jew returning to Germany, I will not make a victim out of anyone who suffered under communism,″ he says. ``We set the price intentionally low.″

About 120 people have accepted the offer or are in the process of doing so. The majority are holding out _ taking their chances with the courts.

Sonnenthal, now in private practice in Denver, will be in the courtroom today. If it rules against him, he’s already planning to take the case to the Constitutional Court, Germany’s highest.

``It’s been seven years and 20 trips″ to Germany, he says. But for the sake of his grandparents, ``I carry on.″

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