Rutland Herald

OMYA's past

March 29, 2000

It was a catastrophe so immense that more than half a century later the moral calculus concerning the events of World War II continues.

Most recently, Pope John Paul II journeyed to Israel where he spoke with passion of the suffering of the Jews and expressed his contrition for Catholics who did not do more to oppose the Holocaust.

In this country, museums are inspecting their collections to return to their rightful owners works of art looted by the Nazis.

In Switzerland, banks have been forced to admit they have long held assets seized by the Nazis or deposited by Jewish victims of the Nazis. More has also been learned about the economic dealings between neutral Switzerland and Nazi Germany.

It is in this context that the Herald learned that OMYA SA, a division of Pluess-Staufer, had been found guilty of economic collaboration and fined by the government of France after World War II.

Pluess-Staufer is the Swiss-based parent company of OMYA Inc., the Vermont company that processes calcium carbonate at its plant in Florence. Calcium carbonate is the white marble that, in powdered form, is used in plastics, paper, paint and other products. After the war the committee in France that investigated economic collaboration concluded that the company's operations in France had benefited the war operations of Nazi Germany.

The company argued that it was merely trying to survive and that business with Germany actually declined during the war. Even so 44 percent of the company's production was delivered to Germany, and Germany considered the company to be beneficial to the German economy. The British had put the company on a watch list of companies in a position to provide useful raw materials to Germany.

It is impossible to know for sure the degree of OMYA's culpability or even the accuracy of the French post-war investigation. During the war everyone in Europe faced hellish choices about the degree to which they would oppose or collaborate with the occupying forces.

There were those who helped Jews escape, and there were those who helped herd them onto box cars. The vast majority in the middle probably looked on with varying degrees of horror or approval as the nightmare of war unfolded around them.

In business, there were extremes as well. Some companies benefited from slave labor. The accusations against OMYA indicate a real but relatively low level of involvement with Nazi Germany. The fine OMYA faced was not extreme. The case against the company appears to have been a reminder that accounts after the war would not go unsettled and that illicit profits would have to be surrendered.

Certainly, OMYA's travails during World War II are no reflection on OMYA Inc. of Florence. But OMYA's wartime dilemma is not without relevance to the present day.

In recent years businesses have been called to account for their dealings with dangerous regimes. During the years of apartheid in South Africa, businesses with dealings there quite properly faced pressure to help foster change. It is also a good idea to keep track of companies profiting from business with Iraq or companies providing essential military technology to China. Companies taking advantage of sweatshop conditions in Latin America and Asia have also come under pressure.

An OMYA official in France sought to dismiss inquiries about OMYA's past, saying such questions were as useless as the prosecution of French war criminals. Quite to the contrary, the prosecution of war criminals is a supremely useful exercise. Moreover, knowledge of and sensitivity to what OMYA went through during World War II shines a light on the moral responsibilities that businesses everywhere face.

Knowledge of OMYA's role during World War II is not the occasion for grand moral condemnations. Rather, it is the occasion for reflection on how the compromises and accommodation that occur for the sake of survival can be corrosive to the spirit. That is a lesson that cannot be relearned too often.