Hungarian survivors to settle property lawsuit against U.S.

washington | Hungarian Holocaust survivors who sued the U.S. government are prepared to settle their case for a fraction of the worth of looted property they say U.S. troops mishandled after the war.

Survivors were not “overjoyed” by the Dec. 20 deal in the “Gold Train” case, said Alex Moskovic, one of the lead plaintiffs. Still, they were glad to bring an end to a chapter of Holocaust history that stained the U.S. reputation as a rescuer and not an exploiter.

“We spent quite a few years on this and I feel we needed a closure on this,” said Moskovic, who in 1945, at age 14, returned to his hometown of Sobrance, the sole survivor of a wealthy family. His house was trashed, and he had no idea what had happened to its belongings.

Plaintiffs and negotiators were forbidden from discussing the settlement until it is finalized within the next 60 days, but one person at the negotiating table confirmed a report in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper that the amount was $25 million.

That’s substantially less than $200 million or so in 1945 dollars — or some $2 billion in today’s reckoning — originally estimated to have been looted from Hungarian Jews by the Nazis and placed on 24 boxcars for transport to Germany.

U.S. forces seized the train in October 1945, but almost none of the property was returned to its owners. Some went to governments, some apparently went to the wrong individuals and some was requisitioned by high-ranking U.S. troops entranced with the masterpieces of art.

The fate of the Gold Train property was uncovered in a 1999 report issued by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States.

Plaintiffs who sued in 2001 sought $300 million: $10,000 each for 30,000 survivors and their estates, the maximum compensation allowed under U.S. law.

Instead, the $25 million will go only to living survivors, not to heirs of those who have died. One estimate is that there are 50,000 survivors. That breaks down to just over $7,000 a survivor, though insiders say each survivor will get only about $2,000.

The suit recently reached a stalemate and threatened to devolve into the kind of ugly assessments of how much Jews were worth during the Holocaust that have characterized similar cases in Europe.

A few months ago, Judge Patricia Seitz referred the case for mediation to Fred Fielding, a prominent Washington lawyer who helped negotiate compensation after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Negotiators said several factors played into the decision to accept the settlement, including that fact that virtually no one could prove that his or her property was actually on the Gold Train, which probably represented just a fraction of all the property Nazis stole from Hungarian Jews.

“I have no proof,” Moskovic said. “I couldn’t recognize the property now, it’s not even there to remember, and after 60 years, who remembers?”

All parties said the real significance of the settlement was the acknowledgment of responsibility — though not guilt — that the U.S. government will undertake in letters to survivors.

“Any monetary settlement is symbolic,” said Sam Dubbin, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. “The case had much more to do with historical reckoning.”

The plaintiffs argued that the United States could hardly deny such claims, considering the U.S. role in recent years in forcing other governments to live up to their moral responsibility to Holocaust survivors.

The government’s decision to settle a case that the Justice Department always saw as weak was spurred by intense congressional activism. The politicians who made the case for the survivors applauded the deal.

“Holocaust survivors have achieved the justice so long denied them,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who wrote Karl Rove, President Bush’s top political adviser, just before the November election, urging him to help bring the matter to a close.

“It is only right that after a decade of pushing Europeans to provide restitution to survivors, the United States will do so as well,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief