Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Chapter in Holocaust Justice ; A Jewish Family Is Fighting a Legal Battle with L'Oreal to Receive Compensation for Property Lost to Nazis

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Chapter in Holocaust Justice ; A Jewish Family Is Fighting a Legal Battle with L'Oreal to Receive Compensation for Property Lost to Nazis

Article excerpt

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 Juppe 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 Cafe 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. …

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