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A legal battle over family land

Peter Sonnenthal

Peter Son­nen­thal, L’83, has been locked in a pro­tracted legal battle in the German courts for more than 20 years, hoping to recover prop­erty that belonged to his Jewish ancestors.

Peter Son­nen­thal, L’83, has been locked in a pro­tracted legal battle in the German courts for more than 20 years, hoping to recover prop­erty that belonged to his Jewish ancestors.

He dis­cussed the case on Wednesday after­noon at North­eastern University’s School of Law, deliv­ering a lec­ture titled “That Land was My Family’s Land: A Legal and His­tor­ical Struggle Against Nazi Crimes.” Some three-​​dozen people attended the event, which was co-​​sponsored by the School of Law; the School of Jour­nalism; the Jewish Studies pro­gram; and the Holo­caust Aware­ness Committee.

At stake in Sonnenthal’s case is roughly 200 acres of farm­land in the upscale Berlin suburb of Teltow. Sonnenthal’s great-​​grandfather, Albert Sabersky, and his brother, Max, pur­chased the prop­erty in 1872 and devel­oped the land into a multimillion-​​dollar holding. The value of the land reached $100 mil­lion by 1933, when Hitler came to power and a so-​​called “Aryaniser” report­edly forced the family to sign a con­tract giving the town of Teltow approx­i­mately one-​​third of the property.

My ances­tors were stripped of their land during the Nazi regime through anti-​​Semitic laws,” Son­nen­thal con­tends, noting that his past life as a lawyer for the U.S. Secu­ri­ties and Exchange Com­mis­sion pre­pared him for his fight to reclaim his family’s land. “One day, in light of all the evi­dence, I hope my efforts to obtain a full mea­sure of jus­tice will be seen as responsible.”

Sonnenthal’s resti­tu­tion battle began in 1991, fol­lowing the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reuni­fi­ca­tion. Although he reclaimed some of his family’s plots, German author­i­ties rejected the majority of his claim, ruling in 1996 that his ances­tors had not sold the prop­erty under duress.

Undaunted by the ruling, Son­nen­thal con­tinued to build his case, cre­ating a com­pre­hen­sive “net­work of infor­ma­tion.” His­tor­ical maps of his family’s land proved to be a par­tic­u­larly invalu­able resource, he said, adding that “the research is never com­plete and there are always more leads to follow.”

Son­nen­thal appealed the deci­sion and even­tu­ally moved to Ger­many in 2002 to work on the case, which has wended its way through a labyrinth of German courts for the past 23 years. The lit­i­ga­tion process dragged on, and the two judges pre­siding over the case since 1996—Wilfried Hamm and Peter Pfennig—seemed, in Sonnenthal’s view, to be bent on denying jus­tice. “They were not pro­fes­sionals,” Son­nen­thal said, “and they used their fact-​​finding duties to dis­tort my family’s history.”

After years of failed appeals, Sonnenthal’s painstaking devo­tion to his case appeared to have paid off: In 2003, the Fed­eral Admin­is­tra­tive Court ruled that his ances­tors had indeed sold this prop­erty under duress from the Nazis and, in 2005, the German fed­eral gov­ern­ment agreed to a set­tle­ment. But the vic­tory was short-​​lived.

Since 2006, the town of Teltow has chal­lenged the fed­eral ruling and sought to block Son­nen­thal from building duplexes on the unused land. The local gov­ern­ment fought the nego­ti­ated set­tle­ment by reviving the case’s well-​​worn argu­ment, claiming that the Saber­skys did not face per­se­cu­tion by the Nazis and did indeed relin­quish their land of their own accord.

Last month, the legal saga took yet another unusual turn. In a stroke of good for­tune for Son­nen­thal, Hamm and Pfennig were removed from the case. “[They] were truly not well-​​intentioned,” he said. “As a result, some­thing that could have been resolved fast and prop­erly has not been.”

Although the inter­minable case has caused him and his family great anguish, Son­nen­thal does not harbor any ill will toward Ger­many. “I don’t dis­pute Germany’s deep and abiding com­mit­ment to Holo­caust sur­vivors,” he said. “To heal,” he added, through tears, “I had to for­give Germany.”

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