Gypsies to sue IBM in Geneva over Holocaust role

Orphaned children at Auschwitz, where the Nazis killed more than one million people, 20,000 of whom were gypsies Keystone Archive

A Geneva-based Gypsy group says it intends to sue the technology multinational, IBM, over its role in the Holocaust. It argues that the US corporation played a key role in the persecution of the Roma people by the Nazis.

This content was published on June 7, 2001

The legal action by the Gypsy International Recognition and Compensation Action (GIRCA) is the first by a Roma organisation against a private company.

The move has the backing of other important umbrella groups, such as the Roma National Congress, which represents gypsy groups in 50 countries, and Gypsy and Traveller International Evangelical Fellowship, which has over 500,000 members.

"GIRCA will be the legal entity which sues IBM," says Henri-Philippe Sambuc, the Geneva lawyer representing the group. "All the claimants - and there could be very many - will assign their rights to GIRCA, so that we have one claimant against the defendant."

Sambuc says the various recent Holocaust compensation funds - such as those organised by the big Swiss banks and German industry - have consistently awarded gypsies a much smaller percentage of the funds than that to which they were entitled.

At least 600,000 Gypsies perished in the Holocaust - the Gypsies themselves put the figure at well over one million - and GIRCA says it is claiming on behalf of the children of those that died in the death camps or during forced labour. It says it will claim compensation of around $10,000 (SFr17,900) per orphan.

Sambuc told swissinfo that GIRCA was now preparing a writ. To make its case as watertight as possible, it is creating two international committees - one of jurists to look into the potential legal pitfalls and the other of historians to get a clearer picture of what happened to gypsies during the Second World War.

"Hopefully we can start within six months," he says, adding that the group also needs to raise enough money - reckoned to be around $4 million - to bring the action.

"We rely on the Swiss people and democrats throughout the world to raise the necessary funds, and on the American government, IBM employees and clients to put pressure on the IBM Corp.," Sambuc said.

The lawsuit comes in the wake of the publication of a book earlier this year by Edwin Black, the son of survivors of Auschwitz.

In "IBM and the Holocaust", Black argues that IBM produced custom-built technology for the Nazis, which they used to profile the populations of occupied countries, and to automate the persecution of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other groups deemed to be undesirable.

Black says the Holocaust would have happened without IBM technology, but that its state of the art punch-card machines allowed it to attain the magnitude it did: "It enabled the Nazis to achieve scale, velocity and efficiency," he is quoted as saying.

"Black's book is very important because, 60 years after the events, it is difficult to gather together the facts," Sambuc says.

In February, lawyers in the United States filed a class-action lawsuit against IBM for providing technology that aided the Holocaust, and covering up the activities of its German subsidiary, Dehomag, but later withdrew the action.

There was speculation that the case was dropped following pressure from the US government, which felt the action would hinder payments from the other international compensation funds.

In 1941 IBM's headquarters in New York distanced itself from Dehomag, which was an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler's regime. But GIRCA claims the American parent company continued to supply Dehomag with its punch-card technology throughout the war via subsidiaries in neutral countries, specifically in Geneva, then IBM's European headquarters. That is why the legal action is being taken in the Swiss city.

"IBM's subsidiary in Geneva was supervised and managed from Geneva. As such, this complicity to commit crimes against humanity was organised in Geneva," Sambuc explains.

At issue is whether IBM knew its technology was being used to commit crimes against humanity, and whether the punch-card technology the company supplied allowed the Nazis to persecute on a much greater scale that they would otherwise have been able to.

"The specificity of the machines required IBM to participate directly in meeting the needs of its clients. They knew exactly the purpose of their products," Sambuc says.

IBM insists it has turned over its archives to academics in the United States and Germany, and cooperated fully with Black in his research. It also suggests the records regarding its activities in Nazi Germany are "incomplete and inconclusive".

For the Gypsies, the Geneva action is a major step forward. It is a sign of how Gypsies race, spread throughout Europe and beyond, are starting to speak with one voice.

"Gypsy people are still marginalised, the victims of racism and extreme poverty. In the past couple of years, they have started to get organised. This legal action is symbolically very important. They finally feel as though they have the power to do something," says Sambuc.

"It's a revolution - even in Switzerland - for Gypsies to go before a judge and demand protection and the recognition of their rights," he adds.

by Roy Probert

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