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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

VW Seeks to Compensate War Labor

Fifty years after the end of World War II, the German carmaker Volkswagen is seeking out Russians still alive who were forced laborers in the company's plants and offering them compensation.

Major Russian daily newspapers have been carrying advertisements asking anyone who had worked as a forced laborer for Volkswagen during the war to come forward, said Manfred Janoschka of the Moscow office of the firm KPMG. KPMG Germany was hired as a consultant by Volkswagen to conduct the search.

The first few applications have already trickled into the Moscow office, Janoschka said. He said he has "no idea" how many people his firm would find alive in Russia out of the roughly 20,000 people KPMG officials in Germany say were forced to work in Volkswagen's plants.

The Nazis rounded up people of all ethnicities, usually sending Jews to death camps and deporting many others, including Russians, Poles and Hungarians, to work in Germany. The Russian government says some 4.9 million Soviet citizens worked as forced laborers. They worked as skilled and unskilled labor in German industry, on farms, as waiters and as domestic servants, largely for the families of German officers.

After their ordeals as forced laborers, deported Soviet citizens often returned home and were subsequently sent to Soviet concentration camps set up by dictator Josef Stalin, whose regime accused them of collaborating with the enemy.

The efforts by German companies to pay compensation in the late 1990s have drawn fire from victim's rights advocates, who say it comes too late in Russia, where the life expectancy for men hovers in the late 50s.

The majority of forced laborers - who included people deported from several East European countries - worked at Volkswagen's Wolfsburg plant, where they made missiles and other military equipment, as well as in other plants scattered around western Germany.

Volkswagen is looking for former forced laborers in 20 countries, and in Poland has already made the first payouts, set at the local equivalent of 10,000 Deutsche marks in all countries. That would be about 123,500 rubles ($6,000). Applicants must fill out a questionnaire that will be reviewed by a board of Volkswagen officials and independent experts.

KPMG officials say they intend to contact with victims themselves, not with human rights groups or other intermediarie who have archives on victims of the Nazis in Russia.

The human rights group Memorial, for example, collected data on 4,000 Soviet citizens forced to work in Germany as it researched people sent to Stalinist camps, said Yelena Zhemkova, deputy head of Memorial.

A government agency, the Foundation for Mutual Understanding and Reconciliation, has accumulated an archive in the process of coordinating other compensation projects, the foundation's chairman, Viktor Knyazev, said.

Volkswagen is one of several companies "trying to get in touch with history" by offering compensation to their former forced laborers, Janoschka said.

"The companies are doing this ... to provide something on their own terms," Janoschka said.

Volkswagen has been hit with several lawsuits from U.S. citizens in recent years demanding compensation.