Slave Labour

November 05, 1999, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jew, Christian team up to stress German firms' culpability for war horrors

How much responsibility do German corporations still bear for their actions 55 years ago -- using millions of slave laborers in factories that fueled the Nazi war machine, testing products in medical experiments on concentration camp inmates? It's a question that won't die. If anything, it grows louder as a slew of lawsuits demand compensation for Holocaust survivors who want to see their claims vindicated before they die.

As lawyers for survivors and German companies prepare to meet again in Bonn to thrash out the dollar amount of a joint compensation fund, a local group called the Committee for Appropriate Acknowledgment is pressing the issue in Pittsburgh, where one of the companies in question, Bayer AG, has its North American headquarters. This weekend, the committee will present two fellow activists from Germany -- one Jewish, one Christian -- who have been working on this issue at home for nearly 20 years. The program is titled "Corporate Responsibility and the Holocaust: Voices of Protest from Germany."

The Jewish speaker is Hans Frankenthal, 73, a survivor who returned to Germany after the war and later emerged as one of the chief spokesmen for compensating slave laborers and victims of medical experiments, both of which he was. The Christian speaker is Philipp Mimkes, 34, organizer of a coalition called Nie Wieder, or Never Again, and editor of Stichwort BAYER, or Key Word BAYER, a magazine that publishes articles by journalists, chemists, pharmacists and historians critical of Bayer's past and current policies ((published by the Coalition against BAYER-dangers)).

Both men purchased stock in Bayer AG, giving them the right to speak at the annual stockholders meetings. Each year they do so, urging the company to confront its past and make amends, thus far to no avail.

Their appearance will take place Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill. Frankenthal also will speak about his recently published memoir on Saturday at 8 p.m. at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Squirrel Hill.

"The Germans are way ahead of us on these issues," said David Rosenberg, founder of the Committee for Appropriate Acknowledgment. "They've been investigating and writing about them for decades, where we've just gotten started." Although the program takes place in Bayer's American back yard, the target is not Bayer USA. The American subsidiary has forged a partnership with Jewish institutions in Pittsburgh, and its chief executive officer, Helge Wehmeier, has personally and publicly apologized for Bayer's history. But the German parent company has never issued a similar statement or acknowledged Wehmeier's apology as representative.

"There's an unreconciled conflict between what Bayer USA has been doing here, and what Bayer AG has been doing in Germany," said Rosenberg. "Other German companies have done a lot better job of looking at themselves. Bayer's had opportunities to do the same but hasn't taken advantage of them.

"This is an issue of human justice and historical truth, and it's not exclusively Jewish. We are seeing that more of the surviving slave laborers are non-Jewish -- Polish, Hungarian, Czech. It's an issue of international human rights." Bayer AG has entered the negotiations for the joint compensation fund, but it has not commented on evidence linking Bayer to medical experiments on children and adults at Auschwitz and Mauthausen.

One such case involved an Auschwitz survivor named Eva Kor, who was experimented on as a child by notorious war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele, and who later learned that Bayer had provided him with medications for his work. Her story was detailed by the ABC newsmagazine "20/20" and featured in one of a series of full-page ads in The New York Times by B'nai B'rith International and seven other organizations, pushing for a settlement with Bayer, Daimler-Benz, Ford and BMW.

During their Pittsburgh visits, Frankenthal and Mimkes hope to enlist local support for a postcard campaign pressuring Bayer AG to pay its former slave laborers, admit collaborating with the Nazis, open its archives and apologize. Sunday's event demonstrates growing local support for the Committee for Appropriate Acknowledgment, which began last year with a handful of academics working by themselves.

They were the sole sponsors for their first program last year, which brought in David Fishel, a U.S. citizen and former slave laborer whose lawsuit against Bayer was dismissed by a U.S. judge for lack of jurisdiction. This year, the group has seven other organizations supporting its program. In addition to a grant from The Three Rivers Community Fund, backers include the Allegheny-Ohio Region of B'nai B'rith, the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association, Thomas Merton Center, Service Employees International Union Local 585, and the Tree of Life Men's Club and Adult Education Committee.