WARSAW/BERLIN (Own report) - Victims of unpunished German war crimes in Poland are making progress in their struggle for reparations. The lawsuit brought by a survivor, who had been badly burned when his village was liquidated, has been accepted as a case to be decided by Poland's Supreme Court. The 71 year-old is one of a group of victims, who have never received any form of reparations from the Federal Republic of Germany. Berlin justifies its rejection of similar claims with the reasoning that Nazi massacres are to be seen as sovereign German acts of warfare, therefore immune to individual claims ("State immunity"). After a court in Italy ruled in late 2008 that states cannot benefit from immunity for their crimes against humanity, the possibility of winning redress in court was also opened in Poland. In Warsaw victims associations, representing "Reichsbahn" (German state railroad in WW II) deportees simultaneously voiced their claims, demanding the creation of an aid fund from the company's heirs. Several hundreds of thousand Poles were taken with the "Reichsbahn" and its subsidiary the "Gedob" (General Direction Ostbahn [Eastern Railroad]) to Nazi camps or slave labor. The legal heir of the "Reichsbahn" is the German government, which is represented in affairs of the railroad by the Ministries of Transportation and of Finance. According to the calculations of the "Train of Commemoration" Association, in the course of the deportations throughout Europe the "Reichsbahn" made receipts of at least 445 million Euros at current exchange rates.
The "Foundation for Polish-German Reconciliation" in Warsaw estimates that around 100,000 Polish citizens have claims for reparations from the "Reichsbahn" (German state railroad in WW II). They are the last remaining survivors of the German Reich's large scale terror action, seeking to reduce Poland to an enslaved nation and disperse its citizens throughout the continent - mainly using rail transport. Alongside the death transports to annihilation, the "Reichsbahn's" daily program included the deportation of the populations of cities and regions, for example the eastern Polish region of Zamosc, where the inhabitants of hundreds of villages were expelled and dispersed by train throughout the rest of Poland and where full-blooded Germans were to be settled under the "General Plan East".
Free of Legal Claims
According to the expertise established by the "Train of Commemoration" Association published in November 2009, receipts derived from deportations in Poland - without counting the mass transports to the Auschwitz, Treblinka or Sobibor death camps - would total at least 21 million Euros at today's exchange rates. At least 120 million Euros, at current exchange rates, were for transport between the camps, serving as reservoirs of labor for the German war industries. These receipts were part of the stock of capital that both German states inherited after 1945. The Federal Republic of Germany inscribed the "Reichsbahn" heritage as "special assets" without ever paying compensation to the victims of deportation. The Deutsche Bahn AG only paid a sum of money to the Federal Foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" (German acronym EVZ) for the slave laborers, used by the Nazi state for work on the "Reichsbahn" - free of any legal claims, as the company never forgets to mention.
Demands for restitution are being heard at a very unfavorable time for the Deutsche Bahn AG. The company would like to expand into Poland, taking over part of the passenger transport. With the exception of right-wing extremist and the anti-Semitic spectrums, the Polish media is supportive of the claims being raised in Warsaw, addressed to the Deutsche Bahn and its government owners in Berlin. Poland's former Foreign Minister and former Auschwitz inmate, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski recommended to the German side that it take these claims of the victims' associations very seriously. Last week Bartoszewski met in Warsaw with Cornelia Pieper (FDP), State Minister in the German Foreign Ministry. If no agreement is reached on the claims brought at the beginning of the year, a civil society boycott is not unlikely.
The German side is under time pressure. Between May and October Berlin intends to celebrate the 175 Anniversary of the German Railroad Industry. The Transportation Ministry plans a high profile appearance of its new minister (Peter Ramsauer, CSU), the Deutsche Bahn's new board of directors has made allocations for the "Railroad Year 2010" and the cities of Nuremberg and Fuerth have announced festivities and fireworks. These festivities are "inappropriate" and should also be met with international "disapprobation", should there be no worthy attention paid to the victims, explain the civil society association "Train of Commemoration." The spokesperson for the association declared at a press conference in Warsaw "we are optimistic that a solution can be found."
More than 70 years after Poland's occupation, more victims of the Nazis can hope for reparations. In late 2009, the Supreme Court in Warsaw accepted to consider the case of Winicjusz Natoniewski (71). As a child 5 years-old, Natoniewski barely survived when, on February 2, 1944, German Wehrmacht and SS troops annihilated his home village Szczecyn in southeast Poland, in the vicinity of Lublin. Germans had attacked the village and systematically massacred its inhabitants. In a single day, at least 917 people were killed in Szczecyn and four neighboring villages. This mass execution of innocent civilians was presumably meant as revenge and a measure of dissuasion through terror to prevent resistance. Natoniewski's face and hands are still disfigured by the severe burns he suffered during that massacre in 1944.
Natoniewski brought his case to the Supreme Court, because he doesn't fit in any of the other groups of Polish victims, who, after 1990, had received at least small allowances from Germany, such as former Polish slave laborers, victims of racist persecution or survivors of German death camps. Natoniewski is demanding a million Złoty (about 240.000 Euros at the current exchange rate). Considering his case without prospect for success, he was not granted a hearing in lower level Polish courts. For years Germany has refused to negotiate concerning German war crimes in similar cases, claiming a so-called state immunity. Acts of a sovereign state cannot be tried in the courts of foreign states, is the reason given. But in late 2008 a court rejected this interpretation for the first time: The Italian Court of Cassation sentenced Germany to pay reparations for war crimes. Even though Berlin is trying to have this decision overturned in The Hague's International Court of Justice (ICJ), with the Berlusconi government's cooperation, the Supreme Court in Warsaw is planning to examine whether legal action can now be taken.
Konrad Schuller, the Warsaw correspondent of the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has thoroughly researched the German massacres in Szczecyn and four other southern Polish villages. You can find the review of his book here. The historian Czesław Madajczyk estimates that Germans killed approximately 19.000 people in similar massacres in 750 Polish villages.