In April, Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party — described by the president of the European Jewish Congress as an “unabashedly neo-Nazi party” — won more than 20 percent of the vote in Hungary’s parliamentary election.
A poll by the Anti-Defamation League in 2012 found that 63 percent of Hungarians agreed with three out of four anti-Semitic statements. That same year, Jobbik’s deputy parliamentary leader called for the registration of all Jews in Hungary as well as an evaluation of all Jews in the government to determine the “potential danger they pose to Hungary.”
And in August, as a protest to the Gaza conflict, the far right-wing mayor of the Hungarian city of Erpatak called Israel a “Jewish terror state” and ordered the hanging in effigy of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former President Shimon Peres.
Now, the anti-Semitism rampant across Hungary is emerging as the central argument in a federal appeals court in Chicago that is hearing what is believed to be the only Holocaust restitution case pending in the U.S.
On Tuesday, that court heard lawyers for Hungarian survivors say that increasing anti-Semitism in Hungary makes it impossible for their clients to win their Holocaust restitution case there.
“A virulent strain of anti-Semitism has been spreading at an alarming rate within Hungary … and these dangerous sentiments have found increased acceptance among mainstream Hungarian politicians and parliamentarians,” lawyers for nearly 100 Hungarian survivors said in court papers filed ahead of their arguments to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
U.S. federal courts have jurisdiction in this case because it is against agencies of a foreign government, in addition to which there are alleged violations of international law. The citizenship of those bringing such cases is irrelevant as long as one of the plaintiffs is an American.
The lawyers were appealing a ruling of a lower court — the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois — that dismissed their suits against the Hungarian National Railroad and the Hungarian National Bank on the grounds that they had failed to exhaust their legal remedies in Hungary.
In their court papers, the lawyers said the “threats against the Jewish population continue to grow, creating a situation in which it would be completely unreasonable to require the plaintiffs in this case to pursue their remedies against the Hungarian state in Hungary.”
The suits were filed in 2010 on behalf of Hungarian survivors who allege that both the bank and railroad “were indispensable participants in, and aiders and abettors of, the execution of the Hungarian genocide of the Jews.” It said Hungarian authorities made the Jews pay for their train ride to the death camps.
“These funds were seized either from illegally confiscated private Jewish bank accounts or from the conversion of Jewish personal and real property … as well as from individual Jews as they boarded the trains,” the suit said.
One of the plaintiffs, Edith Eva Eger of San Diego, Calif., told The Jewish Week that she was 16 in 1944 when she was ordered onto a train to Auschwitz with her parents, grandparents and a sister.
“They herded us onto the train and I think my mother had things sewn into her clothes and stuffed into a bag, like expensive jewelry,” she recalled. “They were taken by railroad employees. We had to leave it behind before we were put on the cattle car. My parents and grandparents died in the gas chamber the first day they were in Auschwitz. My sister and I survived.”
The plaintiffs’ lawyers contend that the “continued retention of these assets without restitution by the present day bank is itself a perpetuation of the act of genocide as the Hungarian Jewish community is being denied the means to fully reconstitute itself to this day.”
Lawyers for the bank and railroad insisted that the plaintiffs did not have to bring a suit in the U.S. because they are free to file suit in Hungarian courts. They argued in their court papers that to “determine whether the decades-long chain of successorship alleged by plaintiffs has any validity whatsoever, a court will need to examine complex issues of Hungarian law” and the impact of “Communist expropriation and reprivatization. …
“The Hungarian courts are patently more capable of deciding these issues than U.S. courts, and … . The risk of adversely affecting U.S./Hungary foreign relations by determining these issues is clear,” they argued.
But the survivors’ lawyers argued that pursuing their claims in Hungary would be fruitless. They cited:
n Growing anti-Semitism.
n The fact that Hungary denaturalized and disenfranchised Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, stripping them of any rights accorded Hungarian citizens.
n Compensatory laws defendants said would redress survivors’ injuries expired more than 15 years ago, were available only briefly and were inadequate.
n The statute of limitations on these claims expired.
In addition, the lawyers pointed out, the new Hungarian Constitution exempts Hungary from responsibility for actions committed during the Holocaust.
“Plaintiffs here could even face prosecution in Hungary for daring to ‘denigrate the state’ by accusing the government of being complicit in the Holocaust when the Hungarian Constitution disclaims such responsibility,” they said.
But in its ruling dismissing the suit, the lower court wrote: “Plaintiffs offer mere speculation and unsupported fears that they may not be treated fairly in the Hungarian court system, contending that the ‘Hungarian judicial system is not fair or independent.’”
James Lowy, a Tampa, Fla., lawyer who represents other Hungarian Holocaust survivors who are considering filing a similar suit against the Hungarian railroad and bank, told The Jewish Week that his clients “are afraid that if they openly join the claims in Chicago — without some form of protection — then the Hungarian government will retaliate against them individually, their organization and the broader organized Hungarian Jewish community. … All of them are afraid of the rise in anti-Semitism in Hungary.”
He said they complained to him that the “the idea of having to first make the claims in Hungary before being able to come back to make the claims in the United States is crazy. … Holocaust survivors will never be able to make and prosecute claims in Hungary and they will never get a chance of a fair hearing before a judge who is not prejudiced against Jews.”
But attorneys for the bank said the lower court had considered the plaintiffs’ claims that they feared for their safety in Hungary and “explicitly considered and then disregarded this argument” as having “ insufficient evidence as to their safety concerns.”
Lowy said he believes that once the Court of Appeals rules, survivors from such countries as Romania and Ukraine may file similar restitution claims.
But what may be unique about the Hungarian suits is the claim that virulent anti-Semitism in Hungary makes pursuit of claims there impossible. The plaintiffs contend that although anti-Semitism “continues to be a scourge throughout Europe and the world, what seems different in Hungary is the growing acceptance, tolerance and, in fact, integration of these sentiments into the mainstream.”
They cited a February 2012 survey by the Anti-Defamation League that found that 73 percent of Hungarians believe Jews have too much power in the business world, 75 percent believe Jews have too much power in international financial markets, and 55 percent believe Jew are more loyal to Israel than to Hungary.
And the suit quoted Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, as saying that Hungary is experiencing the most worrying anti-Semitic trends in Europe in which “barely a week passes without an attack on minorities or outrageous comments from far-right politicians.”
Ken McCallion, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, told The Jewish Week that the president of Hungary fired the chief judge for objecting to judicial reforms that caused Jewish judges to resign. He said those and other political changes in Hungary have prompted the European Union to consider expelling Hungary as a member.
He added that he is unable to “find a lawyer in Hungary to work with because they are all afraid of their lives.” He noted that there have been numerous attempts by survivors over the years to sue the national bank and railroad for restitution but they have “gotten nowhere.”
“In the last 50 years, no family has received more than $200 in reparations,” he said.