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Friday, July 6, 2001

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Claims Conference may get Hitler site



THE CLAIMS CONFERENCE, world Jewry's restitution organisation, could soon be given the Berlin site on which the bunker where Adolf Hitler killed himself once stood -- paving the way for its resale to benefit the heirs of the initial Jewish owners.

Martin BormannThe site -- which comprises three adjacent plots of land -- was originally owned by a leading German-Jewish family, the Wertheims.

Since 1945, it has remained vacant and unmarked, to prevent its becoming a neo-Nazi shrine, and is now under the control of the German government.

Two months ago, the Berlin authority responsible for settling restitution cases rejected a claim to the land by the German retailer Karstadt Quelle AG, with the inten-tion, it is said, of turning over the property to the Claims Conference.

For 11 years, Karstadt had tried to prove its ownership, on the grounds that one of its subsidiaries acquired some Wertheim company assets in the 1950s.

But the German authorities turned down the claim, ruling that restitution of the prop-erty was due not to the Wertheim company but to members of the Wertheim family.

Gary Osen, an American lawyer representing the family in a separate US lawsuit against Karstadt, has questioned the German government's own right to the land, saying it could justify its ownership only by claiming that the Nazis obtained it by legal means.

"It is hard to imagine the, legal or moral justification for taking that position," he said.

The land is situated on Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, in the heart of the city's business centre and comprises about 32,000 square feet. I addition to the bunker site, the Wertheim also owned further properties in the same area of Berlin and a large chain of department stores.

Soon after the Nazis came power in 1932 [sic] the family was forced to hand over its holdings to the state, which in turn converted many of the sites into govermnent building -- including the Hitler's chancellery and the bunker which became his home shortly before the end of the war.

After the war, the land was owned by the East German authorities. When the Cold War came to an end and the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it was claimed by both Karstadt and the Claims Conference.

It occupies a prime position in Berlin, Several years ago, an adjacent 172,000-square-foot site -- also once owned by the Wertheim family -- was awarded to Karstadt, which sold it for about $150 million.

The latest restitution ruling has been accepted by Karstadt. "We will no longer pursue the matter," a spokeswoman said. "We see no realistic legal grounds for it."

If the Claims Conference does gain control of the land, it would sell it and pass on about 80 per cent of the proceeds to surviving descendants of the Wertheim family.

After the war, the family received just $9,000 as compensation for its former property holdings in Berlin.

At least theoretically, however, the issue of the bunker site remains open, a spokesman for the German restitution body said last week. The German Finance Ministry, which currently controls of [sic] the sites, will have the task of finally deciding whether to let a transfer of the property go through.

Related item on this website:

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