Will Jews boycott Chrysler after buyout by Mercedes

Back in the 1970s, Ralph Samuel bought a box of fancy soaps for his guest bathroom. When he opened the package at home, he realized the soap was made in Germany.

"I took it back."

Like so many other Jews directly affected by the Holocaust, Samuel boycotted German products as a personal protest for many years.

But over the past two decades, he relaxed that stance as he saw Israelis buying German goods, particularly Mercedes and Volkswagen, cars closely associated with the Nazi regime.

"If it was good enough for the Israelis, it was good enough for me," said the Point Richmond resident, who was sent out of his native Germany as part of a Kindertransport in 1939 but later lost his father to the Nazis.

Earlier this month, Mercedes manufacturer Daimler-Benz AG announced plans to acquire 57 percent of the Chrysler Corp. Unlike other major mergers, this one raised the specter of whether some Jews would begin to boycott Chrysler — a possibility raised even in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

In the Journal's article last week, Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick said that, as a "private memorial" to the Nazis' victims, she would add Chrysler to her boycott of Mercedes.

In contrast, B'nai B'rith International President Tommy Baer wondered, "How far does one carry this, and for how long?"

Neither Chrysler nor Daimler-Benz may have much to worry about in the Bay Area. In a sampling this week of a dozen Bay Area Jews with direct links to the Holocaust, a majority said they don't boycott German goods.

"For me not to buy a Chrysler does not punish the people responsible for the Holocaust," said Samuel, co-chair of the Northern California chapter of the Kindertransport Association.

Other Jews say today's global economy and mega-mergers make it almost impossible to know who really owns any product. They note that hurting the German economy isn't good for that country's political stability. Or they say it's simply time to move on.

But those types of arguments don't sit well with everyone.

"I just find it difficult to support the German economy," said Louis de Groot, who survived as a hidden child in Holland and is former president of the Holocaust Center of Northern California.

"I still haven't heard an official apology from the Germans. And materially, they can never make up for what they took away. You cannot pay for the life of a person."

De Groot, a Berkeley resident, has never purchased a German car. And to him, a Chrysler will now be an equivalent.

Of all the private companies still functioning from the World War II era, Daimler-Benz is one of those most notoriously associated with the Nazis. Adolf Hitler and other top Nazis drove black Mercedes as their official cars. The automaker itself used tens of thousands of Russian and Jewish slave laborers for its factories, which produced engines and vehicles for the German military.

Despite his new link to the German company, Martin Swig, who owns San Francisco's sole Chrysler dealership, isn't worried about any sudden drop in sales.

"Take a survey of any Jewish guy with any money, and I guarantee that 60 percent of them have Mercedes," he said.

"If you towed all the Mercedes parked at Mount Zion, there would be tons of parking spots."

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Swig acknowledged, wealthy Jews did avoid buying Mercedes. They would buy Jaguars, Rovers or Cadillacs instead.

"But Mercedes took the business away from them."

Swig, who managed a Mercedes dealership in the '60s, contends that the corporation simply builds better cars.

Even his uncle, the late Fairmont Hotel owner Ben Swig, was a "proud and happy" Mercedes owner for the last 15 years of his life.

Carol Friend, who lost relatives on her mother's side to the Nazis and serves on the Holocaust Oral History Project's board, also drives a Mercedes.

She bought it four years ago, based on its safety record.

Friend's parents still won't buy German cars, but she considers a German boycott "a remnant of the past."

"The Germans produced a huge war machine. But the car I'm driving isn't any more or less of a contribution to that war than anything else," the Menlo Park resident said.

De Groot knows that a lot of Jews drive Mercedes. "There are plenty. Just go to the parking lots of synagogues."

He finds it "tasteless," but at the same time de Groot doesn't object when the younger generation of Jews buys German. "They don't have the same feelings about Germany."

William Lowenberg, a survivor of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Dachau, echoed de Groot's feelings about Jews who own German cars.

"I don't appreciate it," he said.

Lowenberg, who drives a Pontiac, has not forgotten the Daimler-Benz factories' wartime use of slave labor.

"I can never forget. I will never forget," said the San Franciscan, who is former vice chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's council.

But even Lowenberg is occasionally ambivalent about punishing Germans today.

"They have been fairly decent to the Israelis and they are paying restitution," he said.

Barney Cohen, a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II and the volunteer archivist at the Holocaust Center of Northern California for the past 17 years, doesn't boycott German products.

He even bought a Volkswagen Beetle years ago.

The Germans have paid millions of dollars in reparations over the years, he noted, and they have "fine relations" with the Israeli government.

The Holocaust Center, in fact, has even been a beneficiary.

The German Consulate donates books to the Holocaust Center, Cohen said, and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany recently donated $25,000 toward microfilming the Holocaust Center's archives.

Daimler-Benz has also tried to make up for the past. After years of ignoring claims for reparations, Daimler-Benz agreed to pay more than $11 million in the late 1980s to its former slave laborers .

Such actions aren't enough to convince Flora Green to buy German, however.

"Personally, whenever possible I stay away from German products," said the Daly City resident and daughter of Holocaust survivors. "And I won't buy a Chrysler product now."

Gary Rechnitz, a German native who escaped to Shanghai, China, in 1939, doesn't actively boycott German products.

At the same time, he's never owned a German car.

"And I don't think I ever will," the San Mateo resident said. "Something in my mind tells me I shouldn't do it."

Other Jews have found reasons to let go of the past.

Rabbi Ted Alexander of San Francisco's Congregation B'nai Emunah was once so hard-core that he even rejected his only chance to receive restitution payments from Germany.

"I refused it as blood money," said Alexander, a Berlin native who escaped to Shanghai in 1939.

But about 25 or 30 years ago, a Torah passage jumped out at the rabbi, and changed his mind about punishing post-war Germany.

"Fathers shall not be put to death for children, neither shall children be put to death for fathers," said Alexander, quoting from Deuteronomy 24:16.

"Going by that verse of the Torah, I cannot blame this generation."

Odette Myers, a Paris native who was hidden during the war and passed off as a Catholic child, boycotted German products for 30 or 40 years. But that's no longer the case.

She has seen a new generation arise in Germany.

"Germany in some ways is better than America. You can't even use the word `Nazi' there. You have to be very careful," the Berkeley resident said.

Myers serves as president of Tikvah, a Bay Area advocacy group for survivors, and is a co-founder of Yaldei HaShoah, a support group for those who survived the Holocaust as children.

Her feelings began to change after a friend who survived the Holocaust was invited back to Germany to speak to schoolchildren several years ago. That friend and others have been treated with "great respect" during their trips, Myers said.

Maurice Harris, director of the Holocaust Oral History Project, also believes that Germany has changed.

The country "today is morally no worse than any major industrial state," the 29-year-old said.

Harris, who is in the market for a new car, is considering a Volkswagen Jetta. Though Harris said the idea of owning a German car "does give me pause," his non-Jewish fiancée, who has studied the Holocaust in depth, is the one who "gets the creeps" about buying one.

Still, the Daimler-Benz merger affects his thinking about Chrysler. But not in the way one might think.

Harris, who knows a bit about Daimler-Benz, said its labor practices require that workers comprise half the board of directors.

"That's actually progressive," he said. "If Chrysler has to adopt that model, I'd probably go out of my way to test drive one."