The glissando of German Nazism in the Third Reich and the Egyptian-Nazi program in Nasser’s postwar 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 World War II – 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.
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.
Coke created a great beverage enterprise in Egypt, utilizing the Bigios’ property. Early on, Refael Bigio warned Coke attorneys in Atlanta that they were benefiting from stolen goods. He was ignored. Eventually, the Bigio family sued. That was 15 years ago.
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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, 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.”
Added Hoenlein, “The very essence of the word ‘compensation’ means it must be a fair amount.”
As for Coke’s legal argument that “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 attorneys Alyza 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.”