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Victims no more

NCR Staff
Terre Haute, Ind.

The Bayer Corporation recently launched a new TV commercial promoting One-A-Day vitamins, juiced up with ginseng, as a memory booster. Industry watchers like the strategy; given the graying of America, the demand for memory aids is projected to soar.

Yet for some Holocaust survivors and their supporters, memory is an ironic commodity for Bayer to be peddling, in light of charges that the massive German pharmaceutical conglomerate has for more than five decades suppressed memories of its own role in the Nazi era. A lawsuit filed here Feb. 17 in U.S. District Court by Eva Mozes Kor -- a Romanian-born survivor of Auschwitz -- promises to stir those memories in dramatic fashion.

Kor, 65, and her identical twin sister, Miriam, were among more than 3,000 twins subjected to painful and sometimes bizarre experiments by the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, labeled the “Angel of Death” for consigning thousands of Jews, Gypsies, and other “lives unworthy of life” to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Kor’s class-action suit charges that Bayer supervised and profited from some of Mengele’s experiments, as well as other experiments performed by other doctors on concentration camp inmates.

It is a shocking allegation and the first time a lawsuit has linked a company to the most grotesque Nazi war crimes. From Bayer’s headquarters in Leverkusen, Germany, officials told NCR they will “vigorously contest” the charges.

The suit does not specify a dollar amount Kor is seeking. Her lawyers say they first want to establish how much Bayer may have profited from results of the experiments, but they believe it will be a “substantial” amount.

Bayer argues that from 1925 to 1945 it was part of a different company, IG Farben, and was reincorporated by the Allies in 1951 with a specific exemption from liability for wartime wrongdoing. Moreover, Bayer says that in the special Nuremberg trial for German industrialists, IG Farben executives -- while convicted on other counts -- were exonerated of involvement in illicit medical experiments.

That defense is rejected by Kor’s lawyers, who say they have new evidence not available at Nuremberg and that the specific charges in Kor’s case were never tried. Since Kor’s is a civil rather than a criminal complaint, they also say she faces a less daunting standard of proof.

Some Holocaust scholars add that the Nuremberg trials, conducted as the Cold War dawned, were heavily influenced by the desire to rebuild Germany. In that context, these experts say, many charges were not pursued aggressively.

Kor’s action comes amid a host of new Holocaust survivor lawsuits, filed in the last three years against a who’s who of the corporate world -- Ford, Volkswagen, Daimler-Benz, General Motors, Chase-Manhattan, JP Morgan and others. The lawsuits charge that these companies participated in and profited from Nazi extortion, slave labor and murder. If the claims hold up, they may offer the century’s ultimate object lesson about the dangers of corporate greed.

The lawsuits are also part of a recent trend in human rights litigation in the United States that some liken to the fight against segregation in the 1950s and 1960s -- using the legal system as a tool for social justice. Observers say this new case law could create a powerful bottom-line incentive for corporations to avoid doing business with dictators and human rights abusers for fear of legal consequences in American courts.

An unlikely epicenter

At first glance Terre Haute seems an unlikely epicenter for an international campaign to settle the accounts of the Third Reich. The city is best known as the home of Indiana State University, where superstar Larry Bird gave the Sycamores one brief shining moment of basketball glory in 1979, taking the team all the way to the National College Athletic Association finals.

Yet tucked away here in a nondescript red brick building -- just down Highway 41 from Bird’s Homecourt Hotel and just up from the Square Donut (whose claim to fame is that all the donuts come square, not round) -- is Kor’s CANDLES museum and Holocaust education center. Selling real estate is her job (and by most accounts, she’s good at it), but keeping the memory of Auschwitz and Mengele alive is Eva Kor’s vocation.

CANDLES stands for Children of Auschwitz -- Nazi’s Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors. Kor founded the group in the 1980s to reunite the surviving Mengele twins. To date, she’s located 125. Through CANDLES, Kor has published books, organized conferences and trips to Auschwitz, and operates a Web site. She also funds this one-room museum, whose walls are covered with photos of the camps and of Mengele and his victims. She regularly darts over from her office and meets schools and civic groups who want to hear her story.

Eva and Miriam Mozes were born in 1934 in the village of Portz in Transylvania into a prosperous farm family consisting of their father, mother and two older (non-twin) sisters. When the twins were born, the region was part of Romania; by the time they were 5, the Hungarian regime allied with Nazi Germany had taken control.

In a mid-April interview with NCR, Kor said anti-Semitism was everywhere when she was a child. She remembers doing math problems in school like this: “If you have five Jews and kill three, how many are left?”

In May 1944, her family was put into a cattle car bound for Auschwitz. Her father and two older sisters were probably taken directly to the gas chambers since their names appear nowhere in camp records.

Kor remembers an SS guard walking up and down the line of new arrivals yelling zwillinge, German for twins. Her mother hesitated. The guard approached and asked if the girls were twins. Her mother replied, “Is that good?” The guard nodded yes, and Eva and Miriam were yanked away. Kor remembers crying and turning to look at her mother -- it would be the last time she ever saw her. She was 9 years old.

The girls were taken with other twins to a special barracks in the Birkenau section of the camp, where the main crematoria and gas chambers were located. They were allowed to keep their hair and their clothes, two “privileges” twins enjoyed -- though Kor says that since both were soon swimming with lice and had to be removed, it wasn’t much of a privilege.

On that first day, Eva’s camp ID number was tattooed into her arm: A-7063. Even then she was a fighter. It took two guards and two inmates to hold her down, and she bit one of the SS guards before the tattoo was finished.

In some respects, being a Mengele twin was, in the context of Auschwitz, a lucky thing. Only Mengele could kill them, so they were immune from summary executions. They were exempt from work and even got some playtime. On the other hand, they also endured a series of medical trials that killed many of them (fewer than 200 twins survived).

What Mengele was up to

Scholars still debate exactly what SS Dr. Josef Mengele was up to, but the general picture seems clear. Mengele, 34 when he experimented on Eva Kor, was an intense devotee of Nazi racial theory, which held that genetic factors determine most human traits. Because twins allow genetics to be held constant, they provide ideal subjects for “nature v. nurture” research. His interest in dwarves, hunchbacks and others reflected a desire to understand random genetic mutation.

Mengele was especially interested in three questions: how to sterilize “undesirables” quickly and efficiently; how to promote multiple births in Aryan women; how to manipulate genetic traits.

Toward the first end, Mengele and other doctors experimented with X-rays, surgical castration, even sex change operations; toward the second, they took anatomical measurements and performed comparative autopsies hoping to unlock the secret of what caused twins; and toward the third, Mengele did things like injecting chemicals into the eyes of twins to see if he could change their color to blue. Many of those tests left inmates blind.

Other experiments took place in the camps under the supervision of other SS doctors. Connilyn Feig, a Holocaust expert at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and author of Hitler’s Death Camps says some experiments were designed (at least in theory) to improve care for wounded soldiers. Nazi doctors would dunk inmates in freezing water to see what effect the cold might have on downed pilots. In other cases, an inmate’s legs would be cut open and stuffed with glass, dirt and metal, then sewn up in order to create severe infection. Experimental drugs would be tested. When they failed, the inmate died.

A final class of experiments, Feig said, were those done in tandem with drug companies. She says tests were conducted with experimental cures for typhus, tuberculosis, malaria and a number of other diseases.

“The logic was that these people are going to die anyway, so why not use them to make some progress?” Feig said.

There are those, like Feig, who believe Mengele was in a class by himself as a sadist. “If there was ever a purely evil person, it probably wasn’t even Hitler,” Feig said. “It was Josef Mengele.”

Kor, however, doesn’t think so. “Many of the people most responsible for the experiments that went on ... hung Mengele out after the war, saying look at this evil man and all the horrible things he did. But he was doing what others did, no more guilty than other doctors in the camps,” Kor said.

Kor said the twins’ daily routine began at 5 a.m., when inmates were awakened for roll call. No matter the weather, they would stand outside until the count was completed -- a process elongated by the need to account for those who had died during the night. Then the twins would return to prepare for Mengele’s inspection.

“He came in with his SS cap, white gloves, immaculately dressed and a stick in his hands,” she said. “When he walked in with his assistants, it was like here comes the ruler of the world.”

Kor said she remembers older girls who dreamed about sleeping with Mengele. “He was handsome, he was intelligent, and he was all-powerful,” she said. “It’s a very difficult combination to resist.”

After inspection the twins, aged 1 to 13 in Eva’s barracks, would get breakfast -- a virtually inedible brownish gruel. Three times a week they would be marched to a laboratory where they were kept naked for hours while every part of their body was probed, measured, recorded and analyzed. Kor described these procedures as “not deadly but unbelievably demeaning.”

Other days they would be marched to another laboratory where they were put into chairs with their arms tied down. From the left arm, two or three vials of blood would be drawn while measurements were taken (one estimate is that 10 cubic centimeters of blood was drawn each time). The right arm received a series of injections, usually four or five, Kor said.    Once, Kor said, she developed an intense fever from an injection. She resisted going to the infirmary, because the rumor was that no one ever came back. Eventually she succumbed, and she remembers Mengele standing over her bed laughing and remarking to a colleague that she had only two weeks to live.

Somehow she survived and returned to the barracks. She later learned that for the first two weeks she had been hospitalized, her sister was under constant SS guard. Kor says the guards were poised to kill Miriam as soon as Eva Kor died. By killing the other twin when one died, Kor says, doctors were able to perform comparative autopsies.

After the Nazis abandoned Auschwitz early in January 1945, the Kor sisters and other twins stayed by themselves until Jan. 27, when the Soviet tanks rolled in. “It was a glorious day. I thought my problems were forever over,” Kor said.

Eva and Miriam returned to Romania, then emigrated to Israel. Eva met a visiting American Jew, Mickey Kor, who persuaded her to marry him and move to Terre Haute, where he was a pharmacist. He is a survivor of Buchenwald.

Health problems

Miriam married and remained with her husband in Israel. She died at 58 in 1993 from cancer, related to kidney problems that Eva believes were rooted in Auschwitz experiments. Eva said that long after liberation she had serious skin rashes herself that began with dots like pimples, then spread over her entire body. She knows twins who are blind, who have spinal deformities and who have a variety of other health problems they trace to the experiments.

While the hunt was on for Mengele during the 1970s and 1980s, Kor said the twins were a big deal in the Jewish community and in the media. Then reports surfaced of Mengele’s death. In 1985 bones reported to be his remains were dug up on a Brazilian beach where witnesses said he had died of a stroke while swimming in 1979. Kor said that after that the world, and especially the Jewish establishment, forgot about the twins. “We were used and then thrown out like a hot potato,” she said.

Kor doesn’t believe Mengele died in 1979. She said that during a trip to his Bavarian hometown of Günzburg in 1991, she phoned Irene Schönbein, his ex-wife, and asked her point-blank if Mengele was alive. Kor quoted Schönbein as saying, “Yes, but I’m not supposed to talk about it.”

Does Kor think Mengele is alive today? “I don’t know,” she said. She said she’s more concerned with finding out what happened to her in Mengele’s experiments than with finding out what happened to Mengele.

Anyway, she publicly forgave Mengele at Auschwitz in 1995. “I discovered that I had the power to forgive somebody. Nobody had to give me permission. ... I was no longer a victim of Auschwitz. I was no longer a prisoner of my pain.”

Kor said she gave Bayer aspirin to her own children, never suspecting any connection between the company and what had happened to her. “I thought they were the greatest company on the face of this earth, that they had discovered all of these cures. It never entered my mind they were at Auschwitz.”

Company officials say Kor’s instinct was right, that Bayer was not at Auschwitz because legally it didn’t exist. The company’s history, however, stretches back well before World War II.

Bayer was founded in 1863 by Friedrich Bayer to produce synthetic dyes. Until then, dyes used in cloth and paint had come from natural substances such as berries and roots. Bayer and his colleagues developed a method of producing dye in the laboratory that proved enormously profitable.

Bayer soon branched out into pharmaceuticals. In January 1899, they introduced acetylsalicyclic acid, better known by its brand name “Aspirin.” Bayer Aspirin remains one of the world’s best-selling over-the-counter remedies 100 years later. Bayer also marketed a new cough medicine in the late 19th century that users reported made them feel “heroic,” hence it was given the brand name name “Heroin.” It was a best-seller until banned due to its addictive properties.

In 1925, Bayer joined forces with other German chemical giants such as BASF and Hoechst to form a cartel -- in German an Interessegemeinschaft, or “IG,” which they named “IG Farben.” By that time, Bayer and the other chemical companies were doing a booming business in synthetics, including a process to develop gasoline out of coal -- important for Germany, which has no oil deposits.

IG Farben was the linchpin of Hitler’s military/industrial complex. The company enjoyed an exclusive contract to make synthetic nitrates, fuel and rubber. In return, Hitler guaranteed the company cost plus 5 percent, plus marketing support for sales of excess production.

Had its own camp

IG Farben was the only firm to operate its own concentration camp. To support their fuel and rubber plants at Auschwitz -- which relied on the forced labor of thousands of inmates every day -- they erected the Monowitz camp, with guard towers, barbed wire and gallows.

Despite the fact that IG Farben’s activity was well-documented after the war -- 24 executives were tried at a special Nuremberg trial, with 12 convictions -- Holocaust expert Feig said that most people found it difficult to believe that ordinary German businessmen had any serious role in the Holocaust.

“The belief was that the crimes were committed by Hitler and a few crazy SS officers,” Feig said. “With the Cold War just beginning, a deeper introspection wasn’t possible.”

The desire to rebuild Europe led to the swift reintegration into Germany’s corporate elite of men who had played key roles with IG Farben. Executive Fritz Ter Meer, sentenced to seven years after testimony showed he had known about the gas chambers at Auschwitz since 1943, was elected chair of Bayer’s Board of Supervisors in 1956.

With time, Feig says the role of business and industry under the Nazis is again coming into view. “There was a tight partnership between the Nazis and several prominent German companies,” she said. For example, Deutsche Bank, one of Germany’s most prominent banks, recently revealed that it had financed the construction of Auschwitz.

Did the companies know what was happening in the camps? “Their ability to know was acute, consistent, close and precise,” Feig said. “It would take extraordinary energy not to know.”

After the war, the allies divided IG Farben back into its constituent elements -- including the “Big Three” of Bayer, BASF and Hoechst. Each is today a multi-billion dollar conglomerate; Bayer had 144,000 employees in 1997 and sales of $32 billion. Bayer’s U.S. headquarters is in Pittsburgh. The company has 24,000 U.S. employees and makes such products as Alka-Seltzer and Aleve, in addition to Bayer aspirin.

In 1995, the head of Bayer-USA expressed sorrow for IG Farben’s wartime role in a public appearance with Elie Wiesel. “I have sorrow and regret and apologize for the inhumanity in my country for what IG Farben did to your people,” said Helge Wehmeier (a German born in 1943). Bayer and the other successors of IG Farben were among the first companies to volunteer to contribute to a new fund the German government has pledged to create for survivors, currently projected at $1.7 billion.

Not the same company

Yet as a matter of law, Bayer insists it cannot be held liable for injuries IG Farben may have inflicted.

“The legal entity we see as Bayer was re-established in 1951, and at the time it was specifically stipulated by the Allied High Command that it would not be held as the legal successor of IG Farben. From a purely legal, technical standpoint, Kor’s suit is not validly addressed to the proper entity,” said Thomas Reinert, Bayer’s spokesperson. Reinert spoke to NCR from his office at Bayer headquarters in Leverkusen, Germany.

“Of course we understand the entire tragic background of the Holocaust,” Reinert said. “But when challenged in a lawsuit, we have to say OK, we will defend ourselves.”

This distinction between IG Farben and its successor entities does not sit well with Kor’s attorney, Richard Shevitz. “Quite frankly I find that rather offensive, because it’s such a hyper-technical defense to such horrible conduct. ... They’ve been in existence in Leverkusen since 1868 and they just recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of Bayer. When it is convenient for them they are one company. When it is inconvenient to acknowledge their transgressions, they say that was a different company,” Shevitz told NCR.

Shevitz said that Bayer’s brand name remained in use under the IG Farben cartel, and the Leverkusen operation employed the same personnel and plants. After the war, IG Farben stock was converted into stock in the successor companies; for every 10 shares of IG Farben, a shareholder received three shares of Bayer, three of BASF, three of Hoechst, and one spread among several small companies.

Of the alleged connection with experiments in the camps, Bayer says that IG Farben officials were charged at Nuremberg with taking part in illicit experiments and acquitted.

“The question of medical experiments was already dealt with by the American Military Tribunal after World War II. The American court ruled in 1948 that IG Farben stopped supplying pharmaceuticals when it became known that they were being used for illegal practices,” a company news release says. “The defendants were found not guilty.”

Reinert declined to specify whether the statement meant the company was denying any knowledge of or connection to all experiments in the camps, saying that was “up to our legal counsel.”

Feig said the company’s argument overlooks the fact that the Nuremberg trials occurred as the Cold War was starting. “The urgent thing was to get on with the rebuilding of Germany,” she said. “They needed to get these businesses back on their feet. The tribunals were not in a position to dig very deep.”

Some legal observers say that Bayer’s appeal to Nuremberg doesn’t work, since Kor’s is a civil case.

“The simplest way to understand this is by comparison to the O.J. case,” said Michael Bazyler, a professor at the Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif., who has tracked Holocaust survivor lawsuits. “O.J. was acquitted criminally and held liable civilly. It’s a different standard -- they don’t have to prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt, they just have to show a preponderance of the evidence.”

Kor’s lawyers say they have evidence of ampules of drugs bearing the Bayer label found in Auschwitz; records of doctors who were Bayer employees and who conducted experiments in the camps; and correspondence suggesting that Bayer officials knew about the experiments and collected results. The lawsuits name specific people as IG Farben employees, such as SS Dr. Helmut Vetter and Dr. Bruno Weber, who were allegedly in contact with Leverkusen about experiments conducted in the camps.

“In response to requests from Bayer, they experimented with drugs Bayer was in the process of developing,” Shevitz said. “This was [research and development] conducted in the context of the Holocaust.”

Some previously published documents seem to buttress parts of that argument. One of the most sensational is a Nov. 19, 1943, letter from an IG Farben official, Wilhelm Mann, to Otmar von Verschuer, Mengele’s mentor. In the letter, Mann -- director of pharmaceutical sales at Leverkusen -- thanks Verschuer for acquainting him with Mengele, and says he found Mengele’s demonstrations “very impressive.” He says he will take up the question of funding, and refers to an enclosed “first check.” Mann’s letter was published in German researcher Peter-Ferdinand Koch’s book Menschenversuche (“Human Experiments”).

Privately Bayer officials say the letter has been in circulation for years and its authenticity is questionable, but Shevitz disagrees. “I have no reason to doubt its authenticity. I would like to see them put up or shut up.”

An Austrian association that maintains records from the Matthausen-Gusen camp system confirmed that Dr. Helmut Vetter did inject inmates with drugs labeled “Ruthenol” and “Praeparat 3582” in block 27 of the Gusen camp.

Shevitz says Kor’s lawsuit also will offer new evidence, much of it from archives opened after the collapse of communism. “There are lots of smoking guns,” he said.

Shevitz said he doesn’t want to tip his hand by revealing that new evidence. Bayer officials likewise said they didn’t want to discuss specifics.

Jurisdictional issues

It’s possible that Kor’s suit will be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, as was another lawsuit filed against Bayer in 1996 by Holocaust survivor David Fishel of Des Moines, Iowa. Fishel was forced to work as a slave laborer in several camps. He sued Bayer (along with four other German companies) for compensation.

A federal district judge ruled that Bayer did not do enough business in Iowa to give him jurisdiction, according to Fishel’s attorney Craig Rogers.

Bazyler said Bayer’s first move with the Kor suit, as in the Fishel  case, will likely be to file a motion to dismiss. “The key for the plaintiffs is to win on that motion,” Bazyler said. “If they do, it’s usually a matter of time until a settlement, because who wants all the horrible publicity?”

Fishel told NCR he grew up in Poland next door to the family of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris. The Lustiger family would give the young Fishel sweets for looking after the future cardinal. Fishel was sent to the camps in 1942 and worked as a slave until the end of the war in 1945.

Despite Bayer’s assertion that it should not be identified with IG Farben, Fishel insists the company owes him. “What happened to the money Bayer earned off my blood and sweat?” Fishel asked in an interview with NCR. “I have a back I can’t move. I’m in pain all the time, but they think they’re entitled to what they made off my labor.”

Nevertheless, Fishel said he’s done fighting. “I spent too much time and money on it already. Let someone else do it.”

Shevitz said attorneys from 10 firms are working on the Kor case, a subset of those who negotiated a $1.25 billion settlement with two Swiss banks for laundering Nazi plunder.

Shevitz says he believes the concentration camp experiments helped Bayer develop products that are in use today. “We know they were used to develop conventional medicines. It’s a matter of asking Bayer how much profit can be traced to those experiments. It’s a significant amount of money,” he said.

While in no way diminishing the incomparability of the Holocaust, Bazyler said Kor’s lawsuit and those of other survivors form a dramatic new front in the broader fight to hold corporations accountable for their conduct.

“Obtaining compensation from bankers and industrialists who profit from human rights abuses sends a message that they cannot hide behind the cloak of ‘business as usual’ when they become joint venturers with a dictatorial regime,” he said.

Bazyler said he knows of 35 Holocaust survivor lawsuits against European and American companies since 1996. In the period from 1945 to 1996, only 12 such cases were filed.

Why now? In part, Bazyler said, it’s the success of the Swiss banks litigation, at $1.25 billion the largest settlement of a human rights case in U.S. history.

Other factors include the fall of the Berlin Wall, which opened previously inaccessible archives all over Eastern Europe, and the passage of time.

“The average age among Holocaust survivors today is 81,” Bazyler said. “They really see this as their last chance to make a statement.”

Vast dollar amounts

The potential dollar amount involved is vast, Bazyler said. Historians estimate that the Nazis stole from $230 to $320 billion in today’s dollars, to say nothing of the value of slave labor or the potential value that might be assigned to suffering as described by Kor. If companies such as Bayer are found to have profited from war crimes, they could be ordered to disgorge those profits -- again, potentially an immense sum.

On the slave labor issue alone, historians believe 700,000 victims are still alive, with some estimates reaching as high as 1.6 million.

To date, the 35 survivor lawsuits fall into four categories: bank cases involving laundered assets; insurance litigation concerning unpaid policies; stolen art; slave labor and, now, medical experiments.

One wrinkle is that almost all of the lawsuits have been filed in American courts. “There would be little or no recovery in foreign courts,” Bazyler said. Most cases concern foreign companies, although Ford and General Motors are both facing slave-labor lawsuits concerning plants in occupied Europe.

Many European countries do not allow class-action lawsuits, Bazyler said, and some put caps on damages. Some countries, like Britain, don’t allow lawyers to take cases on contingency -- an arrangement under which lawyers make money on a case only if they win damages or convince the company to settle.

“For all the lawyer-bashing, this is one of the beauties of the American system of justice -- we can take cases more than a half-century old, can litigate them and decide them,” Bazyler said.

Many of the lawsuits could theoretically be settled through the new fund the German government has pledged to create. Shevitz said the idea could work, but the amount on the table -- $1.7 billion -- is far too low.

“Switzerland bought its peace for its liabilities associated with World War II for the sum of $1.25 billion dollars,” he said. “Switzerland was obviously not the country that perpetrated the Holocaust. Just in a very broad perspective, to hear about a fund to the tune of $1.7 billion hardly seems adequate when you’re talking about the actual perpetrators of the atrocities.”

Such talk raises the inevitable charge leveled at lawyers like Shevitz, and even plaintiffs like Eva Kor -- they’re in it for the money. Charles Krauthammer made this argument in a December 1998 column, denouncing “shysters” out to perform “a shakedown of Swiss banks, Austrian industry and German automakers.” He warned “the scramble for money by lawyers could revive anti-Semitism.”

Kor disagrees. “The average person should not endorse or close their eyes to business when it is unethical,” she said. “There is no other way I can send that message than a lawsuit that hurts the one thing they understand, the bottom line.”

In another context, Israel Singer, leader of the World Jewish Congress, put the argument for the lawsuits this way: “Himmler said you have to kill all the Jews because if you don’t, their grandchildren will ask for their property back. ... I want to return all their rights.”

Kor’s lawsuit and the others would have been “laughed out of court,” Bazyler said, were it not for the emergence of a body of case law in the last three decades that makes it easier to use American courts to punish human rights abusers.

The case that started it all was Filartiga v. Peña, a 1980 decision that upheld the right of torture victims anywhere to sue in America. A Paraguayan family brought suit in the United States against Americo Peña-Irala, former inspector-general of police in Asunción, then living in Brooklyn. Peña had tortured Joelito Filartiga, a human rights activist, to death in Paraguay by whipping him and administering high-voltage electric shocks to his fingertips and penis.

Human rights lawsuits

Though neither the Filartigas nor Peña were American citizens, the family sued under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a previously obscure 1789 statute that provides a civil action in American courts for a violation of the law of nations. The Carter administration sided with the family and they won on appeal.

Peña had fled the United States by that point, but a judgment was entered against him. The court held that “the torturer has become -- like the pirate and slave trader before him, hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind.”

In 1991, Congress adopted the Torture Victim Protection Act to allow U.S. citizens the same ability to sue.

More recently, so-called Filartiga cases have been filed against corporations. Royal Dutch Shell is being sued in a U.S. court for its alleged ongoing participation in human rights violations in Nigeria, and Unocal, a California-based oil company, is being sued for alleged complicity with the government of Myanmar (formerly Burma).

Shevitz said that the Filartiga precedent and the Alien Tort Claims Act has been part of almost every one of the Holocaust survivor lawsuits.

“It’s a very proud moment for me as a lawyer to be involved in this,” Shevitz said. “In a sense I can liken it in broad strokes to the 1960s and the results of some litigation in terms of desegregation. The American legal system provides a mechanism by which an individual can bring a lawsuit against a big company that’s engaged in outrageous, hideous conduct, and get their day in court.”

Eva Kor is not a woman of small dreams. If she wins a big settlement, she says she’d like to build a replica of Auschwitz in Terre Haute. “I believe that anybody who goes to Auschwitz never comes back the same. I would like to bring the camp to the United States,” she said.

“I would have a railroad bringing in visitors in cattle cars. People would sign up if they wished to participate in selections. It would be very small at the beginning, with 6 to 8 barracks. Two would be as they were in the camp. The rest would be used for producing documentary and educational materials that could be used in every school in the world.”

“I plan to do this anyway, but it will happen a lot faster with their money,” she said.

Neither is Kor planning on fading away anytime soon. “I am not going to curl up and go away, ever. Tell those people who think that I might disappear that I can see myself at age 111 going back to Auschwitz and running a tour. I’ll have a little cane, or maybe somebody can push me in a wheelchair. I’ll tell students that I was here 100 years ago when the camp was liberated.”

As much as she wants -- and believes she is owed -- financial compensation and an explanation of what was done to her in Auschwitz, she believes her fight with Bayer has broader significance too.

“Companies must treat human beings with respect. To them I was a nobody in the camps, and I have been a nobody ever since. Let me tell you, I’m not a nobody. They are going to know who Eva Kor is.”

Beneath all the legal maneuvering and historical debate, Kor can probably bank on that. It’s a safe bet that in the halls of Bayer headquarters in Leverkusen, they know her name.

Additional sources of information related to this article:
CANDLES Holocaust museum: www.candles-museum.com
Bayer Corporation: www.bayer.com
Association of Critical Shareholders (in German and English, with information on IG Farben): www.kritischeaktionaere.de
Yad Vashem(Israeli Holocaust memorial: www.yad-vashem.org.il
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (including survivors testimony about concentration camp experiments): www.ushmm.org
Hitler’s Death Camps by Connilyn Feig (Holmes and Meier,1981)
Mengele: The Complete Story by Gerald Posner (Dell, 1987)
Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Miklos Nyiszli (Arcade, 1993)
The Crime and Punishment of IG Farben by Joseph Borkin (Free Press, 1978)
Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz by Lucette Lagnado and Sheila Dekel (William Morrow, 1991)

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1999