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Germans Raise Compensation Fund

March 13, 2001

BERLIN (AP) _ The German industry foundation set up to compensate Nazi-era slave laborers said Tuesday it has gathered its half of a $4.8 billion national fund, ending months of pleading to firms to fulfill their moral responsibility for Germany’s past.

However, it wasn’t clear when the estimated 1 million elderly survivors will be paid from the government-industry fund. The companies insist on the dismissal of class-action lawsuits in the United States _ which prompted the fund in the first place _ before they can transfer the money.

``As soon as sufficient legal security is reached _ and that should be the case as soon as possible _ then the payments to victims will begin,″ industry foundation spokesman Wolfgang Gibowski said in a statement.

``The German industry realized their moral responsibility,″ Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said on German television.

The failure of German business to come up with its half of the fund was cited by a New York judge in her refusal last week to dismiss a class-action suit against German banks. That is one of several pending cases that the companies insist be set aside before payments begin to the survivors, mostly non-Jewish eastern Europeans sent to Germany to keep industry running during the war.

The companies agreed on the $4.8 billion figure in December 1999 after negotiations that included the German and U.S. governments, other eastern European countries and Israel, and lawyers representing survivors. The number of firms in the fund has swelled to about 6,000, but pledges had stagnated for months.

Gibowski said a letter and telephone campaign is still going on to ask members of the industry fund to raise their contributions and to encourage non-member companies to join.

But for the first time Tuesday, he said the foundation’s 17 founding members _ including companies such as Bayer, BMW, DaimlerChrysler and Deutsche Bank _ have guaranteed they will substantially increase their pledges to meet any shortfall.

Gibowski, however, said ``not a single penny″ of the money would be transferred until legal security is assured.

``The next step has to be made in America,″ he said by telephone. ``I always told everybody that the money is not the problem, the problem is to get rid of the lawsuits.

``Now we have the money, now we expect all lawsuits to be dismissed,″ he said.

The spokesman for the Polish-German Reconciliation Foundation, Mateusz Chachaj, said he was hopeful that ``payments could start flowing even within a couple of months.″

Earlier, parliament President Wolfgang Thierse told a delegation of American rabbis that he would look for a way to legally start paying compensation to the former laborers.

``There must be a way to do this without releasing industry from its moral duty,″ Thierse told the interdenominational North American Board of Rabbis delegation during a meeting at the Reichstag.

Schroeder is to meet with industry leaders Wednesday and expressed optimism earlier they would find a way to start payments. Gibowski said the meeting would focus on legal security.

Nazi labor compensation is also likely to be discussed when Schroeder travels to Washington at the end of the month to meet with President Bush.