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Germany Won’t Block Real Estate Claims

November 18, 2003

BERLIN (AP) _ The German government said Tuesday it won’t block Jewish claims on a swath of prime Berlin real estate lost by the once wealthy Wertheim family in the Nazi-era. But Jewish negotiators said a German retailer is still opposing the deal.

The battle involves one of the biggest restitution cases left over from World War II.

The Jewish Claims Conference said the government has withdrawn appeals against German court rulings awarding 20 plots in the formerly communist east of the capital to the claims conference. The claims conference is acting on behalf of Wertheim heirs living in the United States.

A spokesman for the German Finance Ministry confirmed the government had dropped the appeals. He declined to explain the decision.

But retailer KarstadtQuelle has so far maintained its legal objections over the Berlin property, the claims conference said. The retailer faces a U.S. lawsuit brought by the heirs over its postwar takeover of the family business.

``Karstadt should do the right and moral thing so that restitution can finally be paid after more than 60 years and provide some measure of justice,″ Gideon Taylor, claims conference executive vice president told the Associated Press by telephone from New York.

Karstadt officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

The heirs, Barbara Principe and her nephew Martin Wortham, were ``delighted″ with the government’s decision, Taylor said.

The development brings rare movement in the long-running battle for compensation for the Wertheims. The family once ran a grand department store in Berlin’s now-restored Potsdamer Platz square, one of six across the capital.

The decision also raises the chances of an end to a dispute that German industry has warned could damage a historic German-U.S. settlement for victims of Hitler’s regime.

The family was forced to leave its business under Adolf Hitler’s Aryanization laws.

Property including the site of the flagship store passed to the government after German reunification in 1990. But the capital’s agency for restitution cases awarded it and a string of other former Wertheim plots in 1991 to the claims conference _ prompting the government appeals.

Wertheim lawyers say the total of more than 50 properties at issue are worth about $530 million. The claims conference plans to divide with the heirs any restitution and compensation won through the courts.

Virtually all of the affected properties are owned by the government, Taylor said.

The U.S. suit argues that two Wertheim brothers who fled Germany in 1939 were tricked into giving up their claims over the family business in 1951 for just $24,500 by a non-Jewish former Wertheim executive who had bought up their shares.

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