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Published: Wednesday, 6/20/2001

Visiting the sins

Carrying guilt by association to a ridiculous level, survivors of forced labor in Germany during World War II are claiming an American company with German ties has no business helping to build the new war memorial in Washington, D.C.

It is true that Tompkins Builders, which has a share of a $56 million contract for the memorial, is owned by Philipp Holzmann AG, a German construction concern correctly identified as having used forced labor during the war. But the connection is comparatively recent and so far removed from the Nazi era in this age of multi-national business that it is hard to understand what the fuss is about.

Tompkins, set up in Washington in 1911, is well known for having built, among other public projects, the west wing of the White House and the east and west fronts of the Capitol. The firm was acquired in 1961 by J.A. Jones Construction Co., of Charlotte, N.C., which in 1979 merged with Holzmann.

That's 34 years removed from the end of World War II. And no one is suggesting that the people who run Holzmann today are related to those who brutalized workers during the war. In fact, the German company is among several thousand firms that have contributed $4.5 billion to compensate surviving victims of forced labor.

Emotions still run deep over the atrocities visited on European Jews by the Nazi war machine, and they should, lest similar inhumanities of a monstrous scale happen again. But an eminently qualified U.S. company with an American lineage should not be disqualified from the memorial project just because it now has German owners.

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