New chapter in Holocaust justice
A Jewish family is fighting a legal battle with L’Oreal to receive compensation for property lost to Nazis.
PARIS — 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 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 Café 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. Once in Paris, he granted power of attorney to a German citizen, who then sold his home in Karlsruhe to a German insurance company. The agreement, signed in 1937, and the subsequent sale in 1938 for 12 percent of its appraised value, she says, was coerced. “My grandfather was forced to give the house in exchange for the life of his wife and his daughter,” Waitzfelder says.
This type of forced sale was a “frequent and common practice,” says Martin Dean, a scholar at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.
In 1943, the 18 Allied countries signed an agreement nullifying coercive sales like the one signed by Waitzfelder’s grandfather. But after the war, according to Waitzfelder, apparently no one contacted the surviving members of the Rosenfelder family, and no one came forward to claim the house. At the end of the 1940s, a representative of L’Oreal’s German affiliate optioned to buy the house and finally did so in 1954.
From 1954 until 1991, L’Oreal’s German corporate headquarters was located on the Rosenfelder’s land. The family seeks 30 million euros ($41 million) from L’Oreal, accusing it of knowingly purchasing, and profiting from, stolen property.
In a company statement, L’Oreal “vigorously rejects” the allegations. It has also provided a detailed timeline to establish the company’s innocence.
L’Oreal officials maintain that they received permission from Edith’s uncle for the sale — a fact the family disputes. They also say that the family was compensated by a Jewish restitution organization. But Waitzfelder says the money was never received.
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