During WWII, the Nazis seized a train of stolen Jewish possession from Jews living in Hungary. The train, containing numerous boxcars was dubbed the "Gold Train." At the end of the war, the United States Army took custody of the Hungarian Gold Train in 1945 while the train was in Austria.
Instead of returning the possessions to Hungary or to the heirs and survivors, many of the items were looted because the U.S. Army failed to provide proper safeguards. Much of the rest of the art was sold at auction.
The priceless Jewish heirlooms included art, gold, jewelry, watches, paintings, fine rugs, chinaware, silverware, clothing, currency and stamp collections. Nazis seized the items in 1944 when they invaded Hungary, and the valuables were placed into boxes and bags. In 1945, when the Soviet Union was closing in on the Nazis in Hungary, the Germans created a plan to put all of the boxes onto a train and to send the train to Germany. The 1945 value of the items has been estimated at between $50 million and $120 million. In today's dollars, the items would be worth more than a billion dollars.
The survivors of the Holocaust and their families sought to have an accounting of the stolen items, to identify the items and to the return of the valuables to the rightful owners.
To aid in this demand, Hagens Berman brought a class-action lawsuit in Miami in 2001. As part of the class action, the law firm created an online database so the items could be identified. The database helped to create more than 6,000 descriptions and photos of the stolen property. The database also had a claims process for the Hungarian Holocaust survivors and their families. Many of the items were identified through family photographs and records.
THE U.S. GOVERNMENT'S RESPONSE
The U.S. government had the receipts, making it possible to have returned the items in the 1940s. Witnesses, such as the former mayor of Budapest, confirmed that the goods were identifiable when taken and could have been returned to the rightful owners at that time.
Instead, according to the lawsuit, the U.S. Army knowingly let generals and other high-ranking officers take some of the possessions without returning them.
Many of the Hungarian Holocaust survivors kept the original receipts. Veronika Baum, one of the plaintiffs whose father was killed in a Nazi concentration camp, expressed the sentiment of many survivors. “Even now, it’s difficult to reconcile my feelings about how the U.S. handled this issue. On the one hand, they helped end the Holocaust and gave me a chance to start over. On the other hand, they took the last reminders of my family away from me, at a time when I needed to remember my father.”
Clearly the U.S. knew that Hungary was the country of origin and the U.S. should have given the goods back to Hungary to distribute to the rightful owners.
THE GOVERNMENT DELAYED PUBLIC ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF THE HUNGARIAN GOLD TRAIN FIASCO
The U.S. refused to acknowledge the existence of the Gold Train until a report by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States became public in 1999. Thousands of documents were found in the Bill Clinton presidential library. Other documents were discovered by Holocaust survivors from the government archives of Israel and Hungary.
According to attorneys, the new evidence uncovered since the U.S. District Court ordered the suit to move forward in September 2002, after the government unsuccessfully claimed governmental immunity, includes:
- Documents that support the claim by Hungarian officials that the train was turned over, by agreement of both Hungary and the U.S., to the U.S. Army for safekeeping and ultimate return of the items to Hungary. Other documentation supported the claim that the U.S. did not honor its agreement to return the stolen items.
- A 1949 "whistleblower" letter from Evelyn Tucker, an Army Art historian, who wrote that that taking of the items by top American Army officials was hardly short of criminal. She asserted there was no control over what the U.S. Army sent home.
- Evidence that some of the stolen Hungarian Jewish valuables were on U.S. military bases in 1956.
THE AMENDED COMPLAINT
The Hungarian Holocaust survivors amended the complaint, based on the new documents. They asserted that the U.S. government reneged on its promise and reclassified the property as “stolen enemy property” thus allowing many of the items to be sold at auction, in 1948, to help pay for international refugee settlement programs and to cover up the looting by the military officers.
The new complaint claimed that the U.S. actions were not on a par with the justice the U.S. demanded from other countries such as what was evidenced at the 1977 London Conference on Nazi Gold.
Prompted in part by politics, the case was settled. President George W. Bush wanted the case settled to appease Jewish voters in Florida to make it more likely Florida would vote Republican in the presidential election of 2004.
In 2005, a $2.5 million settlement was reached. The money was not returned to the Hungarian Holocaust survivors. Instead, the money was reserved for Jewish social service agencies who work on behalf of Holocaust survivors.