NEWARK, N.J. (CNNfn) - Survivors of German forced labor camps have sued Ford Motor Co., asking to be paid for their work at a Ford subsidiary during World War II.
Ford told CNNfn the plant was under the control of the Nazi government at the time -- not its American shareholders.
But a class-action lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court in Newark, alleges that company founder Henry Ford had a "personal friendship" with Adolf Hitler that accorded the automaker "uniquely favorable treatment" by the Nazis.
The suit is "seeking disgorgement of all economic benefits accrued" by Ford and its German subsidiary, Ford Werke A.G., as a result of the forced labor.
The plaintiffs also are seeking punitive damages for "inhuman conditions inflicted upon them," the lawsuit says.
The suit was filed nearly 53 years after the war because a Nov. 7, 1997, German court ruling changed the German law that previously barred forced laborers from filing claims against private corporations.
"In violation of international law, civilians in German-occupied countries were brutally abducted and transported to Germany where they were compelled to work under appalling conditions producing military troop transports for the German army," the law firm said in a statement.
A Ford spokesman says the company is taking the suit "very seriously" and had hired additional archivists to search company records to find answers to questions raised.
Ford Motor Secretary John Rintamaki -- in a written statement -- said "historians and existing records report that the plant was under Nazi control during the war and was not returned to Ford control until after the war."
But the suit contends that "executives of Ford Motor Company exercised control over Ford Werke" during the war.
"Edsel Ford and Robert Sorenson, high-ranking officials of Ford Motor Company, served as directors of Ford Werke A.G. throughout the war years," the suit contends.
The men kept in touch with their German plant throughout the war "in an effort to exert management control over the German subsidiary," the suit says.
During the war years, Ford Werke "generated enormous profits, and other economic advantages, from the knowing and aggressive use of unpaid, forced labor," the suit charges.
The lawsuit contends the Nazi government "meticulously safeguarded" wartime profits for Ford, which were deposited in German banks "for delivery to Ford Motor Company at the close of the war."
A Ford official told CNNfn it is unclear how much money might eventually have been given to Ford after the war.
"Although records show that dividends were accumulated from German operations on behalf of Ford Dearborn, they were never paid and their value was cut substantially because of currency devaluation after the war," according to a "chronology" released by Ford.
Regarding the alleged friendship between Henry Ford and Hitler, the suit says, Ford gave Hitler annual birthday gifts of 50,000 marks and that on Ford's 75th birthday in 1938, Hitler awarded him the "Great Cross of the German Order of the Eagle."
"Henry Ford's notorious anti-Semitic pamphlet, 'The International Jew, a Worldwide Problem,' was published in Germany in 1921," the suit says.
The main plaintiff is Elsa Iwanowa , a native of Rostov, Russia, who was 17 years old when she was abducted by the Germans in Rostov and "compelled to perform forced labor" at Ford Werke's Cologne, Germany, plant. Iwanowa now lives in Antwerp, Belgium.
"This action, and others to follow, will seek final justice for hundreds of thousands of victims enslaved or forced to work for the benefit of the German war effort during the Second World War, yielding illicit profits for corporations that willingly accepted such profits," said lead counsel for the plaintiffs, Melvyn Weiss.
The suit alleges Ford Werke was "an eager, aggressive and successful bidder" for thousands of French, Russian, Ukranian, Italian and Belgian civilians forcibly deported to Germany beginning in 1941.
Ford Werke's Cologne factory made about 60 percent of the German military's three-ton tracked vehicles during the war, the suit says. Before the war, the plant made passenger vehicles, it says.
After the war, there was just a brief slowdown in truck production at the Cologne plant, the suit says. In 1948, Henry Ford II visited there to celebrate the 10,000th truck to roll off its post-war production line, it continued.
The suit quotes a June 1941 letter from Ford Werke's board of directors to the German government requesting that the company not be confiscated by the Nazis if war breaks out with the United States.
"Ford has become a purely German company and has taken over all obligations so successfully that the American majority shareholder, independent of the favorable political views of Henry Ford, in some periods actually contributed to the development of German industry," the letter says.
The wartime production manager for Ford Werke, Hans Grande, was kept on by Ford after the war as vice president for European operations, the suit says.
The suit says Iwanowa was taken in October 1942 to Wuppertal, Germany, "where she was literally purchased, along with 38 other children from Rostock, by a representative of Ford Werke A.G."
They were placed "in a wooden hut, without heat, running water, or sewage facilities," the suit says. "The children slept in three-tiered wooden bunks without bedding and were locked in at night. Food consisted of two inadequate meals a day."
From 1942 until 1945, Iwanowa's forced labor consisted of "drilling holes in the motor blocks of engines for military trucks," the suit says. "Her work was supervised by Ford security officials and Ford foremen."
"Forced laborers who failed to meet production quotas were punished and were beaten with rubber truncheons," it alleges. "Attempts to escape were met by execution or transfer to Buchenwald (a Nazi concentration camp)."
Iwanowa was never paid, it says.