New chapter in Holocaust justice

A Jewish family is fighting a legal battle with L'Oreal to receive compensation for property lost to Nazis.

Like many offspring of Holocaust survivors, Monica Waitzfelder, a Paris opera director, learned only the barest details about her family's history.

She knew her mother, Edith Rosenfelder, had fled the Nazis not once, but twice. She knew her grandmother had been murdered at the Auschwitz concentration camp and that her grandfather had died in a refugee camp.

And she knew her mother believed that L'Oreal, the French cosmetics giant, stole her home in Karlsruhe, Germany.

This last bit of history - or lore, depending on whom you ask - is the basis of a book Ms. Waitzfelder has just published: "L'Oreal A Pris Ma Maison," (L'Oreal Took My House).

It's also the subject of an unprecedented legal suit her family has filed against the company - an action that puts her at the center of a painful debate in France about the country's role in the Nazi's systematic effort to destroy Jews and strip them of their possessions. Indeed, the case is forcing France, which once prided itself on being a nation of resisters, to face difficult questions about its involvement with Nazi activity.

In the 1990s, Holocaust historians focused on Nazi looting of artwork and bank accounts from wealthy Jewish families. Today - pushed by people like Waitzfelder - the focus of Holocaust indemnification has turned to what happened to the goods of average people.

In November 2003, Paris was shocked by a book published by historian Jean-Marc Dreyfus and sociologist Sarah Gensburger that detailed the history of three Nazi labor camps in the heart of Paris itself. The camps were tasked with sorting and packing stolen goods from some 38,000 Parisian apartments once inhabited by Jews.

It wasn't until 1995 that French President Jacques Chirac officially acknowledged that the modern French state bore a moral responsibility for Vichy, the French government during the war that collaborated with the Nazis in deporting and imprisoning Jews.

In 1997, Prime Minister Alain Juppé commissioned a team to look into the compensation of Jews whose property was looted by Nazis and their sympathizers during the war. In February this year, the Commission for the Indemnity of Victims of Spoliation (CIVS), an outgrowth of that 1997 project, issued a report declaring that while France had paid 90 percent of its wartime debts to Nazi victims, the state still owed some $154 million to French Jews looted by Nazis.

But the Rosenfelders, a German family that fled to France, fell through the system's cracks.

"In 1936, my grandfather came to Paris because he said it was no longer possible to live [in Germany] as a Jew," says Waitzfelder, sitting in the chic Café Beaubourg in Paris.

The Rosenfelders, she explains, were a wealthy family with prime real estate in the town of Karlsruhe. But by 1936, her grandfather, Fritz, was investigating how to get his family out of Germany. Once in Paris, he granted power of attorney to a German citizen, who then sold his home in Karlsruhe to a German insurance company. The agreement, signed in 1937, and the subsequent sale in 1938 for 12 percent of its appraised value, she says, was coerced. "My grandfather was forced to give the house in exchange for the life of his wife and his daughter," Waitzfelder says.

This type of forced sale was a "frequent and common practice," says Martin Dean, a scholar at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.

In 1943, the 18 Allied countries signed an agreement nullifying coercive sales like the one signed by Waitzfelder's grandfather. But after the war, according to Waitzfelder, apparently no one contacted the surviving members of the Rosenfelder family, and no one came forward to claim the house. At the end of the 1940s, a representative of L'Oreal's German affiliate optioned to buy the house and finally did so in 1954.

From 1954 until 1991, L'Oreal's German corporate headquarters was located on the Rosenfelder's land. The family seeks 30 million euros ($41 million) from L'Oreal, accusing it of knowingly purchasing, and profiting from, stolen property.

In a company statement, L'Oreal "vigorously rejects" the allegations. It has also provided a detailed timeline to establish the company's innocence.

L'Oreal officials maintain that they received permission from Edith's uncle for the sale - a fact the family disputes. They also say that the family was compensated by a Jewish restitution organization. But Waitzfelder says the money was never received.

Although former L'Oreal figures were exposed last decade as Nazi sympathizers, veteran Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld sees no ties between the Waitzfelder story and that dark past. But he does say a "shameful" situation could be righted. "It's a question of ... principles and morals," he says by phone from Paris.

The first round of legal wrangling has gone to L'Oreal: On Nov. 9, the French Supreme Court declined to investigate the case. Waitzfelder and her mother are now filing a case against the French state at the European Court of Human Rights to force the French courts to reconsider an investigation. But a decision from the EU court could be up to a year away.

Today, the battle is as much for restitution as for truth; both sides are invested in winning the public relations battle. For her part, Waitzfelder will not rest until she sees what she calls a clear issue of "justice" done. "I really ask myself if France is a country of human rights, or if it is the country for the rights of people with money and power," she told reporters when the French Supreme Court denied their case.

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