Holocaust Survivors Gain Ground in Suit Against U.S. Government

MIAMI – Hungarian Holocaust survivors and their heirs last week were handed a major victory when a U.S. District Court gave a class-action lawsuit filed against the U.S. government a green light to proceed. The ruling, made by U.S. District Court Judge Patricia Seitz in Miami, denied a motion brought by the U.S. government to dismiss the case.

The class-action lawsuit, filed in May of 2001, seeks the return of personal property including gold, artwork, jewelry and furniture stolen from Hungarian Jewish families by the Hungarian Nazi government and shipped to Austria on a train that was seized in 1945 by the United States Army in the waning days of World War II.

The property was valued at approximately $200 million at the time of the seizure, now estimated to be worth nearly $2 billion.

The lawsuit, filed by Seattle attorney Steve Berman on behalf of the survivors and their heirs, contends that the United States made no effort to return valuable personal assets and did not respond truthfully to the postwar Hungarian government and a delegation of Hungarian Jews who sought information about the property.

"The U.S. government has fought this suit at every turn with a fusillade of legal arguments," Berman said. "We are very happy that the court agreed that this case is one that deserves a hearing in U.S. court."

According to Berman, the court rejected the government's contention that it was protected from the lawsuit because of sovereign immunity, a legal principle that states that the U.S. government cannot be sued without the government's permission. The court also dismissed the U.S. government's argument that the statute of limitations had expired on the suit, Berman stated.

The court ruled that since the defendants were suing for return of property rather than a tort violation, the suit was not restricted by sovereign immunity. The court also ruled that the statute of limitations did not apply, siding with the plaintiffs in their claim that the government withheld vital information, which prevented a timely filing of charges.

According to the suit, the U.S. government did not publicly acknowledge the existence of the Gold Train property until a report by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States became public in 1999.

"We propose to prove these treasures were misclassified as enemy property," Berman said. "Intentional or not, this error allowed U.S. Army staff to snatch the finest furniture, china, paintings and other items originally belonging to Hungarian Holocaust survivors to decorate government offices and homes. It is a wrong long overdue for correction."

The case stems from the theft of more than $200 million in gold, artwork, jewelry and furniture stolen by the Nazis, which was loaded aboard a train headed for Germany in the waning days of WWII. The train was abandoned in Austria and recovered by the U.S. Army.

According to Berman, the Gold Train suit is the only suit in which the United States government, rather than a foreign government or foreign company, is named as a defendant.

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Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP is a consumer-rights class-action law firm with offices in nine cities. The firm has been named to the National Law Journal’s Plaintiffs’ Hot List seven times. More about the law firm and its successes can be found at www.hbsslaw.com. Follow the firm for updates and news at @ClassActionLaw.

Ashley Klann
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