Originally created 08/17/97

Holocaust survivor sues for `back wages' from camps

DES MOINES, Iowa -- David Fishel doesn't try to stop the tears anymore.

All those years while his daughters grew up, he was silent about the Holocaust. Memories of covering himself with dead bodies so he could survive, of watching in horror as doomed Jews flung themselves on electric fences, all of it was too painful.

Now at 67, he talks about it all the time, pausing to weep when it gets too hard.

"You know why I have to talk about it? Because I'm the baby. The people who spoke before have died," he said.

His message: Don't let history repeat itself. But now there's an urgent twist.

Mr. Fishel, who was just 11 when he was forced to work for the Nazi war machine more than 50 years ago, is demanding to be paid for his labor.

He has sued the descendants of German wartime companies, including chemical companies BASF, Hoechst and Bayer, steelmaker Krupp and industrial giant Daimler-Benz. He asks for unspecified back wages and punitive damages.

"The companies benefited all those years from my slave labor. I never got paid a penny for it. My blood went into it. Am I asking too much to get back pay, whatever it is?" he said.

The companies have retained Iowa attorneys and are asking U.S. District Judge Ronald Longstaff to dismiss the suit on grounds of jurisdiction and statute of limitations. No court dates have been set.

THE GERMAN GOVERNMENT has given reparations to some Holocaust survivors for many years, but Mr. Fishel's U.S. lawsuit against the companies themselves is unique, according to his attorney, Craig Rogers.

"It's my impression that none of the reparations are based on back wages," he said. "They're for loss of education, loss of family, loss of freedom. On the other hand, these companies benefited from these people working there. They should pay for it. It's a simple concept."

Steve Luckert, curator of the permanent exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, said a few survivors successfully brought similar cases in German courts. He said he did not know of any in U.S. courts.

William Marks, a Washington lawyer who devotes his practice to representing Holocaust survivors, said he also did not know of any similar suits.

"The issue of compensation for slave labor is one of the last remaining issues of the Holocaust. The slave labor camps were in many instances worse than the death camps," he said.

Mr. Fishel said he wants to set an example for companies that would hire slave labor, but he needs the money, too. Mr. Fishel and his wife, Louise, ran a delicatessen in Des Moines for 30 years, but "the business folded two years ago."

"I need a part-time job. You got a part-time job?" he asked a reporter. "I need the money. I don't have enough to live on. I can't stand on my feet too long, but I'll give it a shot."

BORN IN POLAND, Mr. Fishel was living with his two brothers, two sisters and his mother in Bedzin, a town on the border between Poland and Germany, when German soldiers dragged him away in 1942. A soldier hit his mother with a rifle butt when she said he wasn't home. She cried helplessly. It is his last memory of her.

He went first to Bismarkshute, a labor camp where he helped make military cannon parts, and then to another labor camp, Riegersfeld, which operated a coal gasification plant. At the third camp, Blahema, which he calls a "subsidiary of Auschwitz," he was given a tattoo on his left forearm - 184,570.

"A hundred eighty-four thousand, five-hundred seventy; that was my first name, my middle name, my last name. That was my identity," he said.

There were three more camps - Gross Rosen, Buchenwald and finally Langerstein - before Mr. Fishel was rescued by American forces. He spent 31/2 years in the camps.

The labor was unceasing: at first, 12 hours a day, six days a week. Later it was every day. He emerged from the ordeal as a walking skeleton, one of the reasons he is overweight today.

"Psychologically, I always think there is not enough food," he said.

IT'S NOT THE WORK that brings tears, though. It's the inhumane conditions and cruelty, especially at the death camps toward the end.

"When I talk, I see it happening right in front of my face. I see it happen. I see the killing. I see kids getting stuck on the electric fence, getting electrocuted," he said.

"My wife, all the time she wakes me up. `It's a dream,' she says. They're killing me. I'm running for my life all the time. I'm just one step ahead of them.

"Yesterday I went to a psychiatrist. I told him one little item, and I started bawling like a kid," Mr. Fishel said. "I'm almost 68 years old, and I bawl like a kid. I told him there were Hungarian twins, a couple of teen-agers. One died and the other wouldn't let go, and I told him how it felt. For hours we tried to get them apart."

And he cried.

At the final camp he saved himself by burrowing beneath bodies in a mass grave.

"You had to be strong to survive," he said. "You had to look out for yourself. What could I do? I had nothing. It affects me every day. I wish it would go away. I would sleep better."

MR. FISHEL LOST ALL of his family members except a brother, who has since died. Mr. Fishel immigrated to Omaha, Neb., where there were relatives. He married, moved to Des Moines and started work in the restaurant in 1952. He bought the place in the mid-1960s. His two daughters are both married and live in nearby states.

Mr. Fishel said he is tired of delays and wants action.

"I want some action in my lifetime," he said. "I'm entitled to it. They prospered on my blood. I want it now, not 50 years from now, because I won't be around."

He said his demand is reasonable.

"I was a kid; they took my life away," he said. "I didn't get to keep my family. I didn't get an education. The only thing I did was survive. I'm not asking for the moon."


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