In December 2004, the U.S. government agreed to settle with Holocaust survivors who claim that American Army officers during World War II plundered a trainload of family treasures that had been seized by the Nazis. On September 26, 2005, a federal judge approved a $25.5 million payment to needy Hungarian survivors around the world. Instead of directly compensating people who said their possessions were stolen, the money will be distributed through Jewish social service agencies over five years, with more than 40 percent of the money going to Israel, 22 percent to Hungary, 21 percent to the United States, 7 percent to Canada, and the remainder to Jews in other countries.
The case began in May 2001 when a group of Holocaust survivors and their heirs sued the U.S. government in the Federal District Court in Miami, Florida seeking an accounting of the U.S. property, a return of any property still in the possession of the United States and damages up to $10,000 (the jurisdictional limit in that court) for as many as 30,000 Hungarian Jews and their survivors.
The government vigorously defended the lawsuit and sought to have it dismissed. In August 2002, the U.S. District Court in Miami upheld some aspects of the complaint, permitting the case to go forward. On December 20, 2004, the parties informed U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz they had reached an agreement and she instructed them to deliver a package detailing a worldwide settlement by Feb. 18, 2005.
The settlement addresses a mysterious incident that occurred 70 years earlier. In 1945, in the waning days of the war, the Nazis sent 24 train cars toward Germany carrying gold, silver, paintings, Oriental rugs, furs and other household goods seized from Hungarian Jews. Nazis, Hungarians and Austrians stole from the train along the way. The train was then intercepted by U.S. forces, and American officers helped themselves to china, silverware and artwork for their homes and offices, according to an advisory commission appointed by then-President Clinton.
The government has never offered an accounting, and no one knows for sure what happened to the property, which was worth an estimated $50 million to $120 million. Some of the property apparently went to the quarters of senior U.S. military officers; some was sold at PXs; some property was auctioned for the benefit of refugee organizations; and most or all the paintings went to the Government of Austria. The history of the train and cargo were shrouded in official secrecy until a presidential commission on Holocaust assets detailed it in 1999.
In November 2003, a database of 1948 auction catalogs of more than 6,000 Jewish heirlooms and personal items went online to support Holocaust survivors’ claims that the U.S. government sold their families’ items when they could have been returned. The database allows Hungarian Holocaust survivors to search for the items the Nazis confiscated at the end of World War II. While there is very little chance that the items will be returned, it is possible survivors may be eligible for monetary compensation in the settlement of the class action suit.
The Justice Department had urged the court to dismiss the case, saying the U.S. government bears no responsibility. But the Bush administration came under bipartisan pressure from members of Congress to settle.
New York University professor Ronald Zweig, who wrote The Gold Train: The Destruction of the Jews and the Looting of Hungary, said the Army made “a very serious effort” to protect the contents, and that the government’s willingness to settle the case was “being done out of generosity and not because the U.S. government did anything wrong.”
Money from the “Hungarian Gold Train” settlement was distributed to social service agencies to benefit Holocaust survivors. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany has distributed $4.2 million to 27 social service agencies, and will give the same amount for the next five years. Survivors interested in learning about the assistance can access www.hungariangoldtrain.org or www.claimscon.org.
Sources: AP, (December 20, 2004); Hagens-Berman; Washington Post, (September 27, 2005); JTA, (January 31, 2006)