The Small Businessman Taking on Coca-Cola
For 15 years, Egyptian-Jewish businessman Refael Bigio has been battling a goliath corporate adversary, The Coca-Cola Company. Bigio charges that Coke has been profiting from his family’s stolen property just outside Cairo. The Bigio family’s property was expropriated by Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser in the mid-1960s during one of Egypt’s anti-Jewish purges. Over the course of a decade and a half, the Coca-Cola Company has steadfastly refused to bargain in good faith or to negotiate any fair compensation for the expropriated property, according to Bigio’s lawyers. In the company’s defense, Coke’s attorneys have defended Egypt’s anti-Jewish seizures and even those of Hitler’s Germany as confiscations that “did not violate international law.”
Coca-Cola’s stony refusal to even place a fair offer on the table, Bigio’s attorneys charge, stands in bitter contrast to hundreds of millions of dollars in profits derived since 1965 from the operations of “Coca-Cola Egypt.” Coke has always known that its multimillion dollar windfall in Egypt has been and is now being generated by property unlawfully stolen from its Jewish owners by Nasser’s regime in a Nazi-style property seizure. In other words, the company is in possession of stolen property—and knows it. Coke’s only defense is that the theft Bigio suffered, for no reason other that he was Jewish, actually did not violate international law and was perfectly legal. By Coke’s long-standing legal rationale, the property of every Jew in the world could be seized without violating international law.
After 15 years, Bigio believes he is now locked in a mortal struggle—not with a beverage company, not with its powerful million-dollar attorneys, King and Spalding—but with the only man who has the authority to resolve the conflict: Muhtar Kent, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of The Coca-Cola Company.
“The Coca-Cola Company had clearly mistreated our family in a shameless way,” says Bigio from his current home in Montreal. With exasperation, he adds, “Enough with the multiple excuses invented by the Coca-Cola legal team.” Bigio continues, “Today the ultimate responsibility lies on its chairman, Muhtar Kent. Kent needs to look at the acquisition of the El Nasr Bottling Company [ENBC], an entity which gobbled up and was merged with the industrial complex of the Bigio family property in Cairo, two bottling factories—all seized by Nasser for no other reason than we were Jews.”
He adds, “Chairman Kent needs to examine every aspect of the transaction his company undertook years before he ever became chairman. He needs to ask himself: Is it acceptable that in defense against our family’s claim, one of the arguments of the Coca-Cola legal team presented in 1997 is: ‘Seizure of Jewish citizens’ property in Nazi Germany did not violate international law.’ Mr. Kent in his current tenure and in the future will be remembered on how he resolves our case by directing his legal team to pay all due compensation long overdue to our family.”
Bigio’s attorneys, award-winning constitutional attorney Alyza Lewin and her father, Nathan Lewin, add their own measure of disgust. “It is absolutely appalling,” commented Alyza Lewin, “that a company making so much money off Jewish patrons, should state that what Nasser did to the Jews—and what the Nazis did to Jews—was perfectly legal under international law. It is shocking and appalling.”
Ironically, as Bigio squares off against Kent over Nazi and Egyptian anti-Jewish persecution, the greatest insult may not be to average sensibilities but to the legacy of Kent’s own father, Necdet Kent. Coca Cola’s chairman Muhtar Kent is a Turkish Muslim. His father earned legendary distinction as the Turkish Muslim diplomat who courageously placed his own life on the line to save Jews during World War II. The elder Kent, Necdet, was Turkey’s vice consul-general in Nazi-dominated Marseilles, France, between 1941 and 1944. He distributed Turkish citizenship papers to dozens of Turkish Jews living in France to save them from round-ups and deportation that would deliver them to Nazi gas chambers.
One singular act of valor by the elder Kent occurred in Marseilles one night in 1943. Nazis and French police were herding local Turkish Jews into cattle cars. Their final destination would be the gas chambers. When Kent learned of this latest round-up, he raced down to the railroad station at St. Charles. As the Jews were being loaded into the cars, Kent saw an indelible scene that seared his conscience.
“The one single memory of that evening which will never be erased from my mind,” the elder Kent related in a book on Holocaust heroism. “What I saw was incredible: cattle trucks full of people, hundreds of women and children, sobbing and screaming!” His eye was drawn to an “inscription which I saw on one of the wagons: ‘This wagon may be loaded with 20 large beasts and 500 kilograms of hay.’ And in each of these wagons, I saw almost 80 Jews pushed in one on top of another.” Even after the Gestapo commander at the track demanded that Kent leave the area, he refused, insisting the Jews in those cattle cars were Turkish citizens, and therefore protected. When the Gestapo commander defiantly refused to exempt the Jews, Kent and his assistant astonished the Germans by jumping aboard the boxcars. Now there were two Turkish diplomats on a train destined for a death camp.
The Gestapo officer pleaded with Kent to jump off. He would not, even as the locomotive began chugging out of the station. As the death train rumbled down the track, Kent had no idea what his fate would be. When the train stopped at the next station, a group of German officers stepped aboard, approached and apologized. Kent was directed to a Mercedes parked near the track, ready to escort him back to Marseilles. Kent still refused: “I explained [to the German], that more than 80 Turkish citizens had been loaded on to these animal wagons because they were Jews and that I was a representative of a government that rejected such treatment.”
Finally, the flustered Germans unloaded the Jews, thus ending the standoff. The saved Jews wept uncontrollably and lavished Kent with endless hundred-year hugs. Kent remembered, “Those embraces around our necks and hands … the expressions of gratitude in the eyes of the people we rescued … the inner peace I felt when I reached my bed towards morning.”
After Necdet Kent retired from a career of valiant diplomatic service, he received Turkey’s Supreme Service Medal. Israel also bestowed a special medal upon Kent, with the inscription: “Saving one life is like saving all the world.” Kent told the assembled audience, “What I have done is what I should have done. I knew I had to act.”
Enter Kent’s son, Muhtar, now chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola. Enter Coke’s corporate attorneys, King and Spalding. To defend against Bigio’s compensation demand, Coke through its attorneys has declared, “Seizure of Jewish citizens’ property in Nazi Germany did not violate international law.” That is, Coke avers that the Nazi regime that its chairman’s father risked his very life to defy was within its legal rights under international law.
How did a beverage company and its well-respected attorneys come to plead Hitler’s case decades after the Nuremberg Trials declared that all Nazi laws, statutes, regulations, and decrees were artifices of a genocidal campaign? The perversion of justice was triggered by the Nazi legacy that infused Egypt in the sixties.
When the Third Reich collapsed in May 1945, Hitler’s war against the Jews ended in Europe—but then continued in the Middle East. Many Nazis melted away from the Reich, smuggled out by such organizations as the infamous Odessa group and the lesser-known Catholic lay network Intermarium, as well as the CIA and KGB. They ensured the continuation of the Nazi campaign in the post-war Arab world. Egypt was a prime destination for German-Nazi relocation in the Arab world.
Dr. Aribert Heim was notoriously known as “Dr. Death” for his grotesque pseudo-medical experiments on Jewish prisoners in the Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, and Mauthausen concentration camps. He was fond of surgical procedures, including organ removals without anesthesia, injecting gasoline into prisoners to observe the manner of death, and decapitating Jews with healthy teeth so he could cook the skulls clean to make desk decorations. Dr. Heim converted to Islam and became “Uncle Tarek” Hussein Farid in Cairo, Egypt, where he lived a happy life as a medical doctor for the Egyptian police.
Two of Goebbels’s Nazi propagandists, Alfred Zingler and Dr. Johann von Leers, became Mahmoud Saleh and Omar Amin respectively, working in the Egyptian Information Department. In 1955, Zingler and von Leers helped establish the virulently anti-Semitic Institute for the Study of Zionism in Cairo. Hans Appler, another Goebbels propagandist, became Saleh Shafar who, in 1955, became an expert for an Egyptian unit specializing in anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist hate propaganda. Erich Altern, a Gestapo agent, Himmler coordinator in Poland, and expert in Jewish affairs, became Ali Bella, working as a military instructor in training camps for Palestinian terrorists.
Franz Bartel, an assistant Gestapo chief in Katowice, Poland, became El Hussein and a member of Egypt’s Ministry of Information. Hans Becher, a Gestapo agent in Vienna, became a police instructor in Cairo. Wilhelm Boerner, a brutal Mauthausen guard, became Ali Ben Keshir, working in the Egyptian Interior Ministry and as an instructor for a Palestinian terrorist group.
A German newspaper estimated there were fully 2,000 Nazis working openly and under state protection in Egypt.
The name “Hitler” was among the most popular post-war names for newborn babies, rivaling the name Muhammad. Indeed, the current commander of the Egyptian military, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, is related to two other Tantawis—one named “Mussolini,” and the other named “Hitler.” General Hitler Tantawi became a top administrative military official and his name can searched on the Internet. Some Egyptians actually re-invented Hitler’s history, claiming that Der Führer was not German; rather he began as an Egyptian village boy named Muhammad Hadair who wandered from village to village praying at all the mosques.
The glissando of German Nazism in the Third Reich and the Egyptian-Nazi program in Nasser’s post-war regime directly led to the implementation of Hitler’s confiscation program in Egypt. That program swept away the Bigio family’s property—as it did for some 800,000 other Jews living in the Arab world after WWII—nearly all of whom fled or were expelled.
In Bigio’s case, the assemblage of warehouses and manufacturing buildings sprawled across 10,000 square meters in the midst of bustling Heliopolis. The entire industrial complex traces its main commercial life to the 1930s when Bigio’s grandfather first bought the land and built a shoe polish plant there. Eventually, the family business added a tin container manufacturing operation to hold the shoe polish, and from that venture expanded into general tin plating. Eventually, they produced tin bottle caps for soda. In 1942, at the height of World War II, a Coca-Cola licensed bottler became the family’s tenant, bottling the world-famous cola. Later, they added the fruity drink called Fanta, which Coca-Cola originally developed for the Nazi military.
One day in August 1962, Refael Bigio was driving to the factory with his father. Police cordons surrounded his buildings at 14 Aswan Street in a well publicized takeover. As Bigio and his father nervously stepped up the stairs, a policeman barked that the government had nationalized the business. “Give me the keys,” he demanded.
Coca-Cola stood in the wings to snatch up the bottling property—confiscated, stolen—from the Bigio Family. Coke created a great beverage enterprise in Egypt, utilizing the Bigio’s property. Early on, Refael Bigio warned Coke attorneys in Atlanta that they were benefitting from stolen goods. He was ignored. Eventually, the Bigio family sued to recover from Coke’s unjust enrichment. That was 15 years ago.
Coke’s corporate attorneys, King and Spalding, have made a small fortune in legal fees fighting the Bigio family. The litigation has been so flammable that after a recent court verdict, the multi-billion dollar Coca-Cola Company punitively attempted to collect the tiny sum of $323.70 in copying costs from hapless Bigio. Bigio’s attorneys successfully fought that effort, proving that Coke had inserted photocopying costs from another case. An embarrassed King and Spalding averred that it was all an “inadvertent mistake” and withdrew their collection effort. When asked, a Coke spokesman explained, “We merely filed a standard bill for clerical costs as permitted by court rules—just as the Bigios have done twice previously. However, the filing inadvertently attached the wrong invoice, and given the small amount at issue, we chose to withdraw it as soon as we discovered the error.”
Coke corporate also insists, “Coca-Cola is sensitive to the plight of individuals who have lost property through the actions of others in various countries around the world. We understand their desires for a fair and open hearing of their claims. As we have said many times, the facts make it clear that this grievance is against others and not against The Coca-Cola Company.”
But many believe the Bigios are not getting a fair hearing. In the past, Jewish leaders have asked to see good faith negotiations by Coke. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League has stated, “It’s about time that the Bigio matter be resolved, in good faith, either by negotiation or speedy litigation.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which represents some 51 leading Jewish organizations, has also asserted, “When the government of Egypt originally seized this property, that was clearly wrong. The fact that Coke joined in needs to be taken into account. It is not realistic to give back the property, but it is realistic to provide fair compensation to the Bigios.” Hoenlein emphasized, “The very essence of the word ‘compensation’ means it must be a fair amount.”
As to Coke’s legal argument, “Seizure of Jewish citizens’ property in Nazi Germany did not violate international law,” which it asserted as a basis to excuse a similar theft in Egypt, a Coke spokesman stated, “Mischaracterizing a legal citation from a 1997 court filing to suggest that it represents our Company’s broader, well-established views on universal human rights is inappropriate. To even remotely suggest that the Company somehow condones the Nazi seizure of property is ridiculous and offensive.”
But constitutional attorneys Alyza Lewin and Nathan Lewin maintain that Coca-Cola’s pleadings speak for themselves. Coke claims its use of the Bigios’ property is legal because Nasser’s seizure of Jewish property was lawful. In making that argument, Coke adopted the position that “Nazi seizure of Jewish property was not an illegal act.”
As for the question of whether Coke chairman Muhtar Kent had dishonored his father’s legacy by advocating that “seizure of Jewish citizen’s property in Nazi Germany did not violate international law,” a Coke spokesman stated, “This is not relevant to this case.” When Kent’s office was called directly, the switchboard operator brusquely informed, “He does not wish to talk about it.”
But Bigio does want to talk about it. He says, the case is now between him and Muhtar Kent. Bigio insists, “Only Kent can do the right thing.”
Edwin Black is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of IBM and the Holocaust, as well as The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust.