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Germans racing to claim old homes

Published Oct. 16, 2005

Kremlin opposes NATO link to reunified Germany. 25AWith the rush toward reunification gaining momentum, West Germans are racing to reassert their rights to houses they say were taken from them when they lived in East Germany, prompting near panic among hundreds of the current tenants.

In the East Berlin suburb of Pankow, for example, the Communal Housing Administration oversees 7,000 houses once owned by West Germans.

Birgit Rausch, an official with the housing administration, said West Germans are streaming back to East Germany to inspect the properties.

"The tenants feel very insecure when they see West Germans looking around. No one wants to end up homeless like in the West," Rausch said.

Hundreds of residents have been attending weekly counseling sessions, where they learn what to do when confronted by a West German holding an old property title.

"Basically, we learn that we're safe until March 18. Then there will be elections. Afterward _ we don't know," said Nicola Seghers, a resident of a house claimed by a West German.

A major obstacle to reunification appeared to have been removed last week when Germany's opponents in World War II _ the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France _ agreed to a framework for unity talks to be held after East Germany's first free elections.

Even before that, West Germans had begun to assert their claims to thousands of former family or business properties in East Germany.

The problem began with the westward exodus of millions of Germans immediately after World War II and continued with other emigrants whose property was expropriated by East Germany before they left for West Germany.

Compensation was paid on claims made until 1972, but the amount was almost always low; the fixed rate for all property was 60 months of rent, meaning the East German state paid only $6,000 for a single-family home in the 1970s.

Although thousands of people accepted the compensation, they may end up paying it back in order to reacquire their land rights under West German law, according to Hermann-Josef Rodenbach, a counselor with the All-German Institute, a West German government office.

"Everyone wants to know when they can finally get their house back. They feel that they have suffered a great injustice," Rodenbach said.

While some West Germans view their old property as a new gold mine, others want their land back for sentimental reasons.

Hilmar Schneider, a 50-year-old masseur from the West German city of Kiel, said he wants to resettle in the East Berlin row house he had to abandon when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. The house, which his grandfather bought in the 1930s, needs about $600,000 in repairs, Schneider estimates, which could be financed through loans and higher rent on its 24 apartments.

But it is far from certain that Schneider will get the money. Brunhild Becker, who lives in Schneider's house, said the current average subsidized rent of $13 a month would have to be raised drastically, something she said she cannot afford.

"I don't feel very secure any more. Who can afford to pay Western prices?" Becker said.

Even the East German government may have cause to worry. According to the newspaper Berliner Zeitung, a wealthy West Berlin resident has laid claim to the plot of land where the Foreign Ministry was built, and a Swiss insurance firm still has claim to the property where East Berlin's most visible building stands _ the 1,000-foot TV tower and revolving cafe.

Commercial claims are not likely to be pursued, however, for fear of jeopardizing future business in the East, Rodenbach said. The Deutsche Bank, for example, could claim 30 plots where it had offices, and Kaiser's Coffee Store could lobby for the return of its 1,600 branches. Neither business has plans to do so.

Probably the biggest loser in the current property wars will be Bonn's treasury. Rodenbach said that with billions of dollars in claims expected to be filed after the March 18 elections, and few East Germans able to pay, German taxpayers may have to make up the difference.