PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- For 68 years, Barbara Principe thought she knew who she was:
A Lutheran raised on a South Jersey chicken farm. A proud mother living in the same small, Newfield, N.J., home where she raised seven children. A wisecracking grandmother who works seven hours a day on the Peerless Pearl Co. assembly line, making sure each shirt button has four holes, not five.
"A simple individual," Principe says. "A simple life."
Then, one day in 2000, things got complicated.
Gary Osen, a Bergen County, N.J., lawyer, called. He talked, and he talked, and he talked. For hours, he wove tales of Principe's father, Nazis, an alleged fraud, a long-lost diary, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, dubious land deals, a German conglomerate, and a graduate student who uncovered a mystery.
The bottom line: In modern-day dollars, Principe's German ancestors, the Wertheims, were billionaires.
And, the lawyer calculated, Principe might be worth $80 million.
What's more, she might be a Jew.
Principe is now a lead plaintiff in what could be one of the largest Holocaust-era claims ever.
Two primary claims
She and her relatives have two primary claims pending: One in Germany seeks Berlin land once owned by her family's company. One in federal court in Newark, N.J., seeks damages in excess of $150 million, plus unspecified damages her lawyer says could be worth hundreds of millions more. A ruling by the U.S. judge, who must decide if the case can proceed in American courts, is expected this summer.
Principe's family fortune, wrested away by the Nazis, once included a chain of department stores and prime Berlin real estate, land that Adolf Hitler seized for his headquarters and that later straddled the Berlin Wall. Those who hold current title to the property, including the German government, are reluctant to give it up.
"I'm flabbergasted at the whole concept," Principe says, insisting her parents, who whisked her from Germany in 1939, never spoke of the old family business once they settled in South Jersey.
"It's like having vacant property right smack in the middle of New York City. What's that worth, you think?"
The German government and KarstadtQuelle AG, the company that ultimately acquired the family department-store chain, say they are sympathetic to Principe's story. Nonetheless, they have asked the court in Newark to dismiss her lawsuit, arguing U.S. courts do not have jurisdiction.
German officials cite a 2000 agreement with the U.S. government that directs Holocaust-era cases to a special German commission. A government spokesman, Oliver Schramm, declined to comment.
Principe follows the case closely. In court, she listens as the lawyers argue over "subject-matter jurisdiction" and "international comity." What interests her most is history.
"When I read the legal documents in the case, it's like reading a story about someone else," she says. "Until a few years ago, I had no knowledge of any of this. I don't understand all of it and it's confusing and I get angry. I know my father died young because of stress. Now, I know why."
The farmer's daughter
Principe, now 70, has vague memories of the Germany she left at age 6, when her name was Barbara Wertheim. She recalls a big house, her mother hanging an Advent calendar, and presents under a Christmas tree.
She does not remember the night in 1939 the family fled Germany for Cuba. She knows they settled in Elmer, N.J., a Cumberland County farm town, in 1941.
There, they started a chicken farm. It was a hard life. Winter mornings, the children's chores included smashing ice in the troughs so the hens could drink. After school, they gathered and sorted eggs.
Principe's father wasn't much of a farmer. He suffered from kidney stones and colitis, a disease that forced him to carry a bedpan wherever he went.
"He kept getting sicker and sicker," she says. "It was all nerves. It was not a happy, cheerful household."
Her parents never spoke of life in Germany.
In 1951, at age 18, she married a local button-factory worker, Dominick Principe. They lived with her parents. At night, he helped out on the farm.
Three years later, Principe's father died at age 52 of a heart attack. Principe knew he had been an angry man. She had little clue why.
The graduate student
In 1994, Simone Ludwig-Winters, a 39-year-old German graduate student researching the Wertheim company history, unearthed a pile of documents from prewar Germany, records that would later unlock a window into Principe's hazy past.
The papers, unavailable until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, included Wertheim's archival bank records. Ludwig-Winters also obtained the diary of Wertheim's chairman in the 1930s. She produced a detailed history, going back to Principe's great-grandparents' business in 1875. It eventually grew into a valuable department store in the heart of Berlin.
The Jewish couple, Ida and Abraham Wertheim, opened their first linen store, A. Wertheim, in 1875 near the Baltic Sea. They prospered by introducing new sales concepts. Fixed prices replaced haggling; cash sales replaced bartering.
Wertheim became the first to open a glamorous Berlin department store. Newspapers chronicled Kaiser Wilhelm's visit in 1910. "It was a marvelous place, far more elegant even than Harrod's today," says Ludwig-Winters, now a Berlin-based political science professor.
Abraham Wertheim's heirs -- sons Georg, Wilhelm and Principe's grandfather, Franz -- converted to Christianity in 1906. But the stores still faced anti-Semitic attacks. "People felt they were once Jews, so they stayed Jews their whole lives," Ludwig-Winters says.
As Wertheim flourished, it bought up central Berlin land to keep competitors from encroaching on the flagship store.
But "what looked liked a good investment in the 1920s became politically and historically lethal," Osen says. "They ended up owning properties across the street from the epicenter of the Nazi regime."
When Hitler changed the nation's racial laws in 1933, the Wertheims, including Barbara, were "redefined" as Jews despite their 1906 conversion to Christianity. That year, the Wertheims saw a rival chain, also Jewish-owned, seized by the Nazis' "Aryanization" program.
"The threat was clear," Ludwig-Winters says. "After 1934, [Georg Wertheim] was still the majority owner, but he couldn't even go to his office anymore."
To save his store, Georg Wertheim, Barbara's great-uncle, felt compelled to transfer his majority shares to his non-Jewish wife, Ursula.
"1 January 1937," he wrote in his diary. "The store is declared to be 'German.'"
Georg Wertheim also felt pressured to divorce his wife. Arthur Lindgens, a trusted family adviser who had ties to top Nazis, would later marry Ursula. With that, Lindgens gained control of Wertheim.
Meanwhile, the Nazis were purchasing -- at far below market value -- Wertheim company land. On one huge site they built the Reich Chancellery, seat of Hitler's government.
Principe would not begin to learn these details for more than half a century.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Principe pursued restitution for a family hunting lodge in the former East Germany, one her mother had long sought.
She retained Osen, whose father also fled prewar Germany. Nine years later, she was awarded $75,000 and figured that was the extent of her due. She still had no idea her family had owned a string of department stores.
But in late 1999, as a result of related litigation, Osen, working with an organization representing unclaimed Jewish property, won the right to review more government and corporate files. The records detailed Principe's ancestors' 1930s ownership of Wertheim, and how her father and uncle relinquished postwar rights to lost Wertheim shares in 1951.
Osen also discovered that Principe's father and uncle may have been defrauded.
On Aug. 15, 1951, the South Jersey men met Lindgens, who still ran Wertheim, in New York. He convinced them the company was nearly worthless, Osen says, and paid them $5,000 to waive future claims.
During his research, however, Osen discovered what he believes to be proof of fraud -- a 12-page, handwritten secret deal merging Wertheim with Hertie, a competitor. The contract, also consummated in New York, is dated three days before Principe's father and uncle sold their shares, believing they were worthless.
Ten days after the two sold their stake in the family company, Wertheim officially, but quietly, merged with Hertie. Some remaining Wertheim stockholders overseas were handsomely rewarded, Osen says.
When Principe learned all this -- how the family fortune was stolen, first by the Nazis, then by trusted family friends -- she recalled the end of her father's short life.
"It's difficult to explain what my feelings are, because when you have not been a part of something for all your life, then all of the sudden you are hit with it, it makes you very angry," she says. "I'm angry because my father died so young. So for him, I will fight for what's rightfully mine."
So far, it hasn't been easy.
Principe is battling the German government, which holds title to some contested land, as well as a corporate giant, KarstadtQuelle, the successor parent of the Wertheim company.
KarstadtQuelle, deeded former Wertheim land after the Berlin Wall fell, has already sold some of it. The company earned $150 million for one 5-acre Berlin parcel, site of a future Canadian Embassy and a Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
In U.S. court, Principe and her nephew have sued KarstadtQuelle, alleging fraud -- that Lindgens tricked her father and uncle into relinquishing their shares. They also seek restitution for the 5-acre site.
KarstadtQuelle denies it has done anything wrong and argues the case should be heard in Germany. The company has not said if it thinks the 1951 deal was fraudulent, spokesman Andrew Frank said.
Principe has won one legal battle. In June 2001, a Berlin restitution agency awarded her and relatives 15 acres of the disputed eastern Berlin land. But a German government appeal is still pending and is unlikely to be resolved for years.
Back to Berlin
In 2000, Principe returned to Berlin for the first time to take stock of her family's former fortune. She visited one of two enormous Wertheim stores. It reminded her of Macy's in Manhattan. She bought a white scarf with embroidered flowers.
She has no plans to return.
"For what?" she says.
Should she win tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in restitution, Principe says she will share it with her extended family, for future generations. And, in honor of a daughter who died of cancer, she plans a large gift to aid medical research.
As for religion, Principe says she will remain a self-described nonpracticing Lutheran. She also adheres to something her father often said, that religion should be based in a person's soul, not his church.
This does not surprise Osen, a Nazi-era claims specialist. "She is not one of those people who goes around thinking about what might have been, or what her past was, or should have been," he said."She lives in the here and now. She views what happened as a remarkable curiosity in terms of historical implications and what it means for her family. But in terms of identity, she is fixed on being American, being from New Jersey, and being a grandmother."