City using my Nazi-looted property, says Shoah heir

By Toby Axelrod, January 17, 2014
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A Jewish heir to properties on the edge of former East Berlin has taken his fight to Germany’s Supreme Court.

Peter Sonnenthal, 59, has been trying for more than two decades to have land in the city of Teltow returned to his family. But even when some of it was returned, he was not allowed to make use of it.

Today, Mr Sonnenthal, a US attorney who has lived in Berlin for many years, says that for every step forward, there are two steps back.

Local courts have moved “with all the urgency of an arctic snowmelt,” he said.

The properties in question are part of a vast estate purchased in 1872 by Mr Sonnenthal’s great-grandfather, Albert Sabersky, and his brother, Max.

In the autumn of 1933, the family had to turn over all its property to a so-called “Aryaniser” — an official appointed to confiscate Jewish property. The family was forced to sign a contract that gave the city of Teltow a third of its property. “The Aryaniser was allowed to sell the rest, and never turned over any profit to the family,” said Mr Sonnenthal’s attorney, Robert Unger.

Only after the fall of Communism and unification of Germany were heirs able to reclaim the land. Mr Sonnenthal and his sister, Valerie, have claimed half of the family’s property, while other heirs have claimed the rest.

Ten properties on Lichterfelde Allee were restituted to Mr Sonnenthal in 2006 by the federal government, but without any building permission. The Potsdam Administrative Court then barred Mr Sonnenthal from building new housing on the unused parcels, claiming that it is now parkland.

True, said Mr Sonnenthal: “Many years passed and trees grew up, through no fault of my family. But that does not give Teltow the right to benefit from the crimes of the Nazis and the Communists.”

Ultimately, since the land had been zoned for residential construction during the Nazi period, the court relented and suggested that Mr Sonnenthal might be allowed to build based on 1934 construction codes.

That is ridiculous, said Mr Sonnenthal’s attorney, Robert Unger. “We naturally asked for building premises of today.”

Furthermore, Mr Unger said it was “extraordinary” that the city is now fighting restitution of other properties, even though the German federal government has been restituting them since 2006.

With regard to the building permission on Lichterfelde Allee, Mr Unger filed an appeal with the Supreme Court in Karlsruhe last August, claiming that the city of Teltow is unjustly barring Mr Sonnenthal from the use of his property.

A spokesperson for the Supreme Court said no hearing date has been set, but he noted that about 97 per cent of all appeals fail.

It boils down to local politics, said Mr Unger. Politicians “are afraid they could lose in the next elections if they give up any rights without fighting them through. It is a refusal to take any historical responsibility by the city of Teltow”.

Last updated: 7:45am, January 17 2014