A legal battle over family land

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.”