A Nazi-Era Bill Finally Comes Due : Survivors of World War II's Slave- Labor Camps Are Filing Suits against the Companies That Profited from Their Work. the Tab Could Be Billions of Dollars

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Waclaw Kolodziejek stands up, the smile frozen on his face, and pulls open his golf shirt. There on his chest, tattooed in bluish purple, are the numbers 2254. They are slightly askew and off-center, as if the German who injected them was in a hurry. And in August 1940, when Kolodziejek arrived at Auschwitz, the Nazis were very much in a rush. Anxious to build their extermination factory, they yanked Kolodziejek and thousands of other Poles off the streets of Warsaw as conscripted labor. Kolodziejek-a 17-year-old Catholic with movie-star looks-was on one of the first transports to Auschwitz. At the camp, he was beaten and terrorized. In 1942 Josef Mengele experimented on him, Kolodziejek says. Later he nearly starved. He laughs about it now-except when discussing Mengele, then his voice breaks -because there's nothing else he can do.

Kolodziejek spent the entire war in the camps. He worked for three horrific years at Auschwitz, eventually at a job carting rubber solvents for IG Farben, the German chemical giant. Later he constructed planes for Messerschmitt at Mauthausen, a slave-labor camp operated by the Nazis in Austria. His experience is a reminder of the strategy behind the thousand-year Reich's 12-year reign. Nazi Europe was run as a kind of pyramid scheme: conquer a country, then enslave its citizens to empower the machine to conquer more. Under fascism, the corporations that sustained this empire thrived on the low overhead provided by millions of slave laborers like Kolodziejek.

Until now, most of these companies escaped history's notice. Only three firms-Farben, Krupp and Flick-were prosecuted after the war, and a few more paid a pittance in compensation. But in recent months, inspired by last year's $1.25 billion settlement between victims of the Holocaust and Swiss banks, lawyers have filed more than two dozen class-action lawsuits alleging that manufacturers, construction outfits, banks and insurance companies in Europe, Britain and the United States profited from the Holocaust. German companies, of course, have attracted most of the legal attention: marquee names like Daimler-Benz, Volkswagen, Siemens and dozens of others allegedly enslaved hundreds of thousands of Poles, Czechs, Russians and Ukrainians to build camps and armaments and to work in plants. Last week a top aide to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder met with survivors groups and U.S. officials to try to fashion a universal settlement covering German companies. Lawyers expect the settlement to exceed $10 billion.

Germany, however, is not the only legal target. In Australia, former POWs and civil internees are pressing actions against the Japanese over their own enslavement. U.S. lawyers are discussing another suit with Moscow on behalf of Russian slave laborers, Newsweek has learned. …