Judge OKs $25.5 million settlement for WWII looting

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miami | Amid objections from some Holocaust survivors, a federal judge this week approved a $25.5 million settlement between the U.S. government and Hungarian Jews who lost jewelry, artwork and other treasures when a Nazi “Gold Train” was commandeered by the U.S. Army during World War II.

Despite the objections, Judge Patricia Seitz said the agreement represented a “historic” chance to right a 60-year-old wrong committed by some U.S. troops and never adequately addressed by the federal government.

The settlement came in a lawsuit filed by Hungarian Holocaust survivors over the U.S. capture and pilfering in 1945 of a train loaded with gold, jewels, silver, china, 3,000 Oriental rugs and 1,200 paintings that had been stolen from Hungarian Jews by the Nazis. There are about 62,000 Hungarian Holocaust survivors worldwide.

Rather than trying to directly compensate people whose items were stolen, the agreement will distribute money through Jewish social service agencies over the next five years to needy Hungarian survivors around the world.

More than 40 percent of the money will go to those in Israel, 22 percent to Hungary, 21 percent to the United States and 7 percent to Canada. Lesser percentages will go elsewhere.

Terms of the settlement also call for the U.S. government to issue a public apology for the military’s actions.

“This is a huge victory for survivors everywhere,” said Sam Dubbin, one of the attorneys for Hungarian families in south Florida who brought the original lawsuit in 2001. “We’re elated.”

More than 350 people filed objections to the settlement after it was announced in March. Tibor Lichman, a Hungarian Jew now living in West Palm Beach, Fla., who was held by the Nazis in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, said he favored simply dividing the money among all the survivors because “it is rightfully theirs.”

“By what right does anyone decide the needy ones, who they are, and how much they are going to receive?” Lichman said.

Seitz, however, said she calculated that the living survivors would get only about $300 each from the settlement if it were disbursed that way, once attorneys’ fees and administrative costs were deducted.

She also said that U.S. law in such cases calls for maximum damages of $10,000 each, or an unreasonable $620 million for all 62,000 Hungarian survivors — if they had prevailed at a trial.

Daniel Meron, representing the Justice Department, said there was no guarantee the government would agree to a $25.5 million settlement if the money were simply paid to survivors.

“This settlement is overwhelmingly fair,” Meron said. “We have no interest in delay. We want finality.”

It was not immediately clear if any opponents would appeal the judge’s decision, which would hold up distribution of the money. The case has already lasted five years, with the number of aging Holocaust victims dwindling each year.

“In another five to 10 years, there’s going to be no Holocaust survivors,” said Jack Rubin of Boynton Beach, Fla., another settlement supporter. “They need money now, not tomorrow.”