Elly Gross was 15 when she arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp, where most who entered were bound to die in the gas chambers like her mother and 5-year-old brother.
Although she survived because she was chosen to work as a slave laborer for German automaker Volkswagen, Gross, now 69, still has breathing troubles from inhaling paint at the camp while working 12-hour days with no pay.A class-action lawsuit expected to be filed Monday on behalf of Gross and thousands like her demands compensation for the work of slave laborers, alleging that Volkswagen not only exploited them but worked with the Nazis to ensure their steady supply.
In a similar action, attorney Ed Fagan filed a federal lawsuit Sunday in New York City against several German and Austrian companies - including Volkswagen - over use of slave labor.
"Nobody can give me back my mother and brother. But they can make right what they did to me," Gross, of New York City, said Sunday.
The lawsuits follow this month's $1.25 billion agreement by Swiss banks to settle claims by Holocaust survivors who weren't allowed to collect their assets after World War II. That case was negotiated in part by Fagan and attorney Mel Weiss, who is representing the class-action lawsuit.
Historians believe more than 7 million people were coerced to work in Germany under Adolf Hitler's regime, but the government and German companies have turned down survivors' demands for back wages.
In July, Volkswagen said it would establish a fund to pay back wages. Although the automaker planned to announce terms of the fund in mid-September, Weiss said the company's proposal was not acceptable.
"The industrial companies of Germany played an integral role in the Holocaust," Fagan said. "They masterminded and implemented with the Nazi regime a . . . conspiracy to purposely enslave and exploit Holocaust victims and to profit from the Holocaust."
Some familiar names are among the companies accused in Fagan's lawsuit: Siemens, Krupp, Daimler-Benz, Audi, Wurttembergische Metall Warenfabrik, Heinkel, Eicon Technology, BMW and Leica Camera.
Volkswagen did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment from its offices in Germany and the United States.
"Germany has apologized for the Holocaust. This lawsuit is a test of whether it will put justice where its mouth is," Weiss said.
In April 1944, Gross, her mother and brother were loaded on a railroad boxcar from their native Romania for a six-day journey to Auschwitz.
She was told the family would be reunited in several days. It never happened. After several months she was shipped to a Volkswagen factory near Hannover, Germany, were she spent nearly a year painting machinery parts.