German retailer to drop suit against retribution claim

Wertheim family property was seized by Nazis, sold to retailer, now worth at least $59 million.

German retailer KarstadtQuelle AG said Thursday it was dropping three lawsuits against a Jewish family in a dispute over Berlin properties seized during the Nazi era and now worth more than $117 million. The decision to drop the cases at a Dec. 9 hearing comes after Germany's highest administrative court in October upheld a separate ownership claim by the family on a fourth property. "These are four comparable cases so we are withdrawing our suits, but not in other cases," KarstadtQuelle spokesman Joerg Howe said in a telephone interview. The Jewish Claims Conference, which is representing the heirs of the Wertheim family in the case, called the decision a "long delayed victory for justice and a victory for history." "Karstadt needs to now accept responsibility for the remaining cases," said Gideon Taylor, claims conference executive vice president, in an e-mailed statement. "It is time for these issues to be finalized so that this sad chapter can be closed." The family claims ownership of property in Berlin worth more than $200 million. Three Wertheim brothers had majority ownership in a chain of department stores before Hitler came to power in 1933. As Jews, they lost the property during the Nazi era, and Hitler used some of the land for his chancellory and downtown bunker complex. After the war, the company was sold and eventually became one of Germany's most successful retailers. It was acquired by Karstadt in 1993. At issue are a property in Leipziger Platz, next to the capital's prestigious Potsdamer Platz, that the Claims Conference estimates to be worth between $59 million to $117 million, and three other downtown properties worth a combined estimated $70 million. The properties were awarded to the Claims Conference by the German government restitution authority after reunification in 1990, but Karstadt sued, saying they were the rightful owners. If Karstadt drops the suits as it has indicated, the Leipziger Platz property would go to the Claims Conference, along with restitution for the other three, which have already been sold. The Claims Conference would then distribute the proceeds to the collective heirs - living in the Netherlands, Britain, the United States and Germany. The German government, which sold the two properties after reunification, will be responsible for restitution payments, Howe said. "We don't have to pay anything," Howe said. He added that dropping the suits would not affect other disputes, since Karstadt never held possession of the property in question like it has in other cases, including one in Potsdamer Platz itself. The Potsdamer Platz property "is not affected," Howe said. "There are not yet any court proceedings regarding that and if any arise we will fight them until the legal possibilities are exhausted."