NEW YORK (CNNfn) - A German lawyer and his American partner in the United States have filed a federal lawsuit against some of Germany and Austria's largest companies, including Volkswagen and BMW, on behalf of Nazi-era slave laborers.
A class-action suit filed Sunday in Federal District Court in Brooklyn names some of Europe's foremost industrial powerhouses, from car makers BMW, Daimler-Benz, Audi and Volkswagen, to electronics maker Siemens, steel maker Krupp-Hoesch and engineering group MAN.
The suit contends that the companies of German "played an integral role in the Holocaust," having "masterminded and implemented with the Nazi regime a 'hub and spoke' conspiracy to purposely enslave and exploit Holocaust victims and to profit from the Holocaust."
The suit embraces Holocaust survivors from New York, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, Canada and Israel, who represent an estimated 2 million survivors around the world.
Those survivors are expected to testify that they were forced to work in abominable conditions, without heat, water or food for lengthy periods and at the mercy of labor camp style guards who beat them mercilessly for even the tiniest infraction.
"Based on all the records that we uncovered in the last two years, we're beginning to find that that old line that 'we were just following orders' is untrue," said attorney Ed Fagan, who filed the suit in collaboration with his German partner, lawyer Michael Witti.
Fagan said he was seeking a minimum of $75,000 per person for each of the estimated 2 million Holocaust-era slave laborers whose existence he said he had confirmed. Fagan warned that the suit marked the end of a 50-year period of dodging and evasion by the companies on their Nazi-era complicity.
"They're in trouble," he said. "I'm sure there are going to be a lot of other lawsuits."
The lawsuits came as the board of Italian insurance giant Assicurazioni Generali agreed to pay $100 million in outstanding claims on unpaid life-insurance policies owned by Holocaust victims.
The insurer also said it would join an international commission comprised of five major European insurers and representatives of Holocaust victims that is grappling with the thorny question of individual firms' liability.
Under the settlement, Assicurazioni Generali would immediately pay $10 million to the Holocaust survivors and their heirs. Any additional damages would have to be approved by a U.S. federal judge.
The negotiations that yielded the agreement for the insurers' panel were independent of pending class-action lawsuits seeking restitution for the value of life-insurance policies sold before 1946 to victims of Nazi regimes.
Lawyers for the survivors argue that the insurers failed to honor policies by Jews who died in the Holocaust, often because no record of death could be produced by an heir, or because there were no surviving heirs.
On August 12, two Swiss banks, Credit Suisse Group and UBS AG, agreed to pay $1.25 billion to settle claims that they improperly held assets belonging to Holocaust victims and their heirs.
The class-action suit filed Monday describes the ordeal of plaintiff Tivka Slomovic, who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, only to be sent by the Nazis with her three sisters to work in a Siemens factory.
There, over the course of six months, the suit contended, "the guards regularly beat Mrs. Slomovic and her sisters with heavy wood batons to make them work faster, and fed them only once per day. It was freezing cold in the factory, and Mrs. Slomovic had little clothing and no shoes."
A spokesperson at Siemens in Munich declined to comment on the suit, saying the company was yet to be served a formal indictment. She said a statement would be forthcoming once officials had a chance to review the suit.