Facing up to a dark moment in its history, the United States in a landmark decision this week agreed for the first time to pay restitution to a group of Holocaust survivors.
But for Manhattanite and Hungarian Jewish leader David Moskovits, the preliminary settlement of the so-called Gold Train suit should have come long ago.
“I’m sorry it took so long to do this,” Moskovits, 59, said of the agreement, details of which are to be worked out over the next 60 days. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said it calls for the United States to pay $25 million to Hungarian survivors.
The case involves the valuables of Hungarian Jews that were confiscated by the Nazis and then sold and looted by American troops. Among the items were chandeliers, menorahs, earrings and rings from his family, Moskovits said.
Noting that several European countries have already made restitution to Holocaust survivors, he added: “We [the United States] should have been the first to do this. But it’s better late than never.”
Stuart Eizenstat, a former deputy secretary of the Treasury who was a member of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust-Era Assets in the United States that investigated the Gold Train, said the agreement to settle the case demonstrates that the “U.S. is facing its own history.”
“This was an exception to an otherwise enviable postwar record of trying to return looted property to the countries from which it had been stolen,” he said of the Gold Train incident. “The key is not the amount of money that goes back to the survivors, but the principle that when the U.S. does something wrong, it holds itself accountable.”
In 1999, the presidential commission issued a report that detailed how the Nazis seized the valuables of Hungarian Jews and then placed the items aboard what came to be known as the Gold Train. American troops intercepted the train in May 1945 and placed its contents in a warehouse in Salzburg, Austria. With the war over, American officials ignored the pleas of Hungarian Jews and the Hungarian government and sold many of the items to American soldiers. Two suitcases filled with gold dust disappeared.
“Some [of the valuables] were used as decorations in the apartments of generals and some were stolen,” said Eizenstat. “The majority was auctioned off in New York. It was never returned to the country from which it was taken.”
Asked about the whereabouts of the items today, he said it is possible they could still be held by “those few GIs who stole it. But the vast majority was auctioned off for cash and the cash was given to refugee organizations after the war. … It would be a serious mistake to try to track it down. It would be almost impossible to do so. Those people who bought it did so in good faith.”
In May 2001, a group of Hungarian survivors filed a class-action suit that sought $10,000 each for 30,000 Hungarian Jews and their survivors living in the United States. Estimates of the worth of the contents of the Gold Train range from $1 million to $50 million. Samuel Dubbin, the Miami lawyer who filed the suit, pointed out that he had initially asked for mediation in the case. The U.S. Justice Department refused.
But in March, Miami Federal Judge Patricia Seitz, who was presiding over the case, also strongly suggested mediation and hinted that she was not prepared to dismiss the case, as the Justice Department wanted. The Justice Department later reversed itself and acceded to the appointment of Fred Fielding, a Washington lawyer who most recently headed the fund that dealt with compensating families of the 9-11 attack, as the mediator.
“It was a combination of the judge’s determination not to dismiss the case … and continued adverse publicity” over the government’s decision to fight it that led to the agreement to settle the case, Eizenstat said.
In addition, many public officials — Republicans and Democrats — lobbied the Bush administration to settle the case. Among them was New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, whose grandfather was the chief rabbi of Hungary. “The money is symbolic,” he said of the settlement. “This brings about a partial closure and acceptance of culpability by the U.S. military.”
Eizenstat noted that “having spent so many years in the 1990s in which we were pointing the finger of accountability and morality on everything from the Swiss banks” to looted paintings and unpaid insurance policies, “we were in danger of setting a bad precedent in relying on legal arguments” to resolve this case.
Israel Singer, who participated in settlement talks as a representative of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the World Jewish Congress, said he had pressed for the U.S. government to make both monetary and non-monetary restitution. “We do not want an apology,” he said. “The U.S. was not like Germany, it was not like France, which collaborated [with the Nazis]. The U.S. saved the Jews. It opened a second front and stopped all Hungarian Jews from being killed. Between March and July 1944, 400,000 of the 600,000 Jews of Hungary were killed.”
He said that in coming weeks, negotiations would be centered on convincing the United States to open all files related to Hungarian Jews and their suffering. “We hope to get the full story … to set the record straight,” Singer said. “We want to know what happened and the U.S.’s role. … The symbolic nature of the non-monetary restitution will be almost as important. This isn’t about money.” He added that it is believed there are 60,000 Hungarian Jewish survivors living throughout the world who would benefit from the settlement.
David Moskovits, chairman of the World Federation of Hungarian Jews, said it would be unrealistic to believe that any of his family’s confiscated valuables would ever turn up. But after this week’s settlement he held out hope that someone would come forward with the valuables. “That person,” he said, “has no idea how grateful we would be to him.”