Hungarian Holocaust Survivors Claim U.S. Auctioned WWII Jewish Heirlooms to Fill Budget Gaps, Hide Military Looting

Newly uncovered evidence shows "unconscionable acts" in handling Jewish heirlooms

Nov. 3, 2003

MIAMI - Hungarian Holocaust survivors on Friday filed an amended complaint in U.S. District Court, introducing new evidence on the extensive looting of recovered World War II Jewish valuables by U.S. Army officers, and the political maneuvers that sold many of the valuables in auctions rather than returning them to their rightful owners.

The amended complaint claims the United States modified its WWII restitution policy and auctioned the recovered Jewish valuables to cover up widespread looting by senior military officers, and to fill in budget gaps in its Jewish restoration program following WWII.

Originally filed in 2001, the suit claims the U.S. government mishandled and later sold at auction thousands of Hungarian Jews' personal valuables - including gold, jewelry, household items, works of art, and fine rugs - originally confiscated by the Nazis but later recovered by the U.S. Army after WWII. For decades, the U.S. government misled the survivors about what had happened to their property, the complaint alleges. The story only began to be revealed in a 1999 government report, and the amended complaint now greatly expands public knowledge about what happened.

"The story about these unconscionable acts by the U.S. government must be told," said Steve Berman, co-lead counsel representing the plaintiffs. "The government has a duty to these Holocaust survivors to tell the truth."

Since a September 2002 court ruling rejecting the U.S. government's claims of immunity and ordering the case forward, Hungarian Holocaust survivors and their attorneys found in the U.S. archives and Clinton Presidential Library thousands of documents supporting their case, including formerly classified U.S. government documents made available by the court and documents from the Hungarian and Israeli government archives. The amended complaint filed with the judge also includes documents from the Clinton presidential library that must remain under seal.

"We have found a staggering number of documents shedding light on this case," said Jonathan Cuneo, co-lead counsel for the survivors. "It is striking to see in cold type what the government knew and what it would not tell the Holocaust survivors all these decades. And we have every reason to believe there are more documents still to be found that tell the same story of governmental misconduct."

According to attorneys, the new evidence uncovered since the U.S. District Court ordered the suit to move forward in September 2002 includes:

  • Newly discovered documents, found in archives in Budapest, documenting for the first time how Hungarian officials turned over the train to the United States explicitly so our government would hold it for safekeeping and return to Hungary - a condition agreed to by the U.S., according to the documents.
  • An anguished 1949 "whistleblower" letter from an Army art historian, Evelyn Tucker, describing how top Army officers stole property and fine art that once belonged to Jews. "The position of the Fine Arts Officer - was eliminated in July 1946," she wrote, "and from then until October 1947 the negligence of this explosive situation was hardly short of being criminal. (These are strong words, I know, but hear me out). There was no control then on what American officers sent home and there is very little now." Again, this document was never before released.Detailed requisitions of the stolen Jewish property by high-ranking military officers in Europe, much of which was never returned.
  • Documented discoveries of stolen Jewish property on U.S. military bases in 1956.
  • Evidence of a deal brokered by the U.S. Secretary of State that promised Hungary the return of all stolen Jewish property.
  • Details on the U.S. investigation into breaking its agreement with Hungary, begun only a few days after the deal was struck.

In addition, in recent months hundreds of Hungarian Holocaust survivors came forward to join the lawsuit, many of whom have original receipts for family property given to them by the Nazis. One of the newly named plaintiffs, Veronika Baum of New York City, lost her father in a concentration camp after the Nazi occupation in 1944 and returned to her family's home in late 1945 to find it emptied. Incredibly, she retained receipts for her family's property, given to her mother by the Nazis in 1944 - property that the plaintiffs say made its way onto the Gold Train.

"Even now, it˝s difficult to reconcile my feelings about how the U.S. handled this issue," said Veronika Baum. "On 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 family the most. I just don't understand how they could do that. All we are asking for is justice after all these years."

The History of the Gold Train
During their occupation of Hungary, the Nazis forced thousands of Hungarian Jews, many times by torture, to deposit valuables and family heirlooms in Hungarian banks and other institutions. Many of the goods were deposited on a train and moved west out of Hungary.

The train, dubbed the Gold Train, contained 29 boxcars filled with personal heirlooms and valuables - including art, gold, jewelry, diamonds, silverware, fine china, porcelain and religious items. The train left Hungary bound for Austria on March 30, 1945, but the war ended before it reached its destination. The train's commander asked the U.S. Army to accept custody of the train and safeguard the cargo until it could be returned to Hungary. U.S. officers quickly determined that the property on the train had been stolen by the Nazis from Hungary's Jews, documents show.

Unchecked Borrowing and Looting
Even though the Gold Train properties were valued between $50-$120 million, the U.S. Army stored the valuables in a poorly protected warehouse in Salzberg, where the property was subject to widespread looting the complaint states. For example, a report from a U.S. State Department official noted: "I have been informed that a certain amount of looting from the warehouse has already taken place and do not see how further dissipation of property can be prevented under present conditions."

The U.S. Army also knowingly permitted top-ranking officers to requisition valuables for personal use, and even allowed many of the items to return home with military personnel, the suit contends.

In one instance, according to the complaint, a U.S. general requested chinaware and fine silverware sufficient for 45 people; water, highball, cocktail, champagne and liquor glasses sufficient for 90 people; 30 sets of table linens; and 60 sets of bedding. His request noted that "The General desires that all of the above listed items be of the very best quality and workmanship available in the Land of Salzburg," the suit states.

News of the Gold Train and its treasures spread throughout the armed forces, and the complaint notes that several generals and other high-ranking officials made requisitions for thousands of luxury items such as oriental rugs, paintings, candlesticks and other valuables, much of it never returned.

U.S. Breaks Promise to Return Items to Cover Up Looting, Fill Budget Gaps
After the end of WWII, Hungarian officials diligently negotiated with the United States to recover the items, and in June of 1946 received a promise to return all looted properties to Hungary from the U.S. Secretary of State, the suit claims. The government even issued a press release announcing the Hungarian property would be returned. But the U.S. government reneged on its promise to return the property to the Hungarian government, and instead redefined its restitution policy to reclassify the valuables as "captured enemy property," allowing Gold Train items to be auctioned off, easing the burden on the U.S. Treasury of paying for refugees and covering up looting by military officers, the suit states.

During a series of auctions in 1948 in New York, many of the most valuable Gold Train items were sold to the highest bidder. Contrary to U.S. claims that the items' owners were unidentifiable, individuals came forward with evidence that the auctioned items belonged to them, including a former Rabbi of Budapest who retrieved a Kiddush cup he once owned.

"The U.S. was literally sitting on a pile of treasures, and they couldn't resist selling the valuables," said Sam Dubbin, an attorney representing the survivors. "Meanwhile the survivors themselves were asking for the property back, living in poverty and forced to start new lives with little more than the shirts on their backs. It's a real shame that the government has kept the truth about the survivors' property from them all these years."

The items that weren't sold off were either packed away or requisitioned by U.S. officials, sometimes ending up in personal offices, according to the complaint.

Concealment, Refusal to Provide Accounting
Since 1946, the U.S. government has steadfastly held to this definition of the looted Jewish property as "captured enemy property," and evaded and even lied to Hungarian officials and Jewish organizations about the ability to identify the owners of the property, refused to provide an accounting of the property, and actively concealed its wrongdoing, the suit contends.

One of the active concealments occurred when the United States told Hungary and other Jewish organizations that it would be impossible to identify the origin and individual owners of the Gold Train property. The suit claims that not only were there numerous ways to identify the owners of the property, since many of the Jews had clearly marked their property when depositing it and received detailed receipts, but also that the U.S. government could easily identify the national origin of the Gold Train property as Hungary.

Since the 1948 auctions, the U.S. has found additional caches of Gold Train items in various military bases, and the suit notes that there are reasons to believe that additional stolen Jewish property remains in U.S. possession. 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. That report concluded the Gold Train was an "egregious failure of the United States to follow U.S. laws and policies concerning restitution of Holocaust victims" property. In fact, the complaint alleges, that final report was watered down due to pressure from the U.S. Army. "For political reasons, the Army's criticism of the progress report meant that the final report would be less overtly critical of the military and its handling of the Gold Train," the commission's research director declared in a sworn affidavit.

The amended complaint noted that the U.S.'s actions are also sharply at odds with the historic justice it has demanded of other countries at international conferences such as the London Conference on Nazi Gold in 1997. "The United States' treatment of this property is sharply at variance with the law and the United States' stated restitution policies," it said. "It is also at odds with the historic justice that the United States has demanded from other nations. This long pattern of evasion continued for decades, and has only now begun to unravel."

The suit represents heirs and members of Hungarian Jewish families whose property and precious heirlooms were confiscated by the Nazis and seeks an accurate historical record and accounting of the items on the Gold Train, including a search for records by the U.S. government, and restitution for plaintiffs.

For more information or to view the complaint and supporting documents, visit

About Hagens Berman
Hagens Berman is a law firm with offices in Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles and Phoenix. The firm has developed a nationally recognized practice in class action litigation. The firm is co-lead counsel in litigation to recover losses from Enron employees' retirement funds and represented Washington and 12 other states in lawsuits against the tobacco industry that resulted in the largest settlement in the history of litigation. The firm also served as counsel in several other high-profile cases including the Washington Public Power Supply litigation, which resulted in a settlement of more than $850 million, and the $92.5 million settlement of The Boeing Company litigation. Other notable cases include litigation involving the Exxon Valdez oil spill; Louisiana Pacific Siding; Morrison Knudsen; Piper Jaffrey; Nordstrom; Boston Chicken; and Noah's Bagels.

About Cuneo Waldman & Gilbert, LLP
Cuneo Waldman & Gilbert is a law firm based in Washington, D.C. with offices in New York City. It represents consumers, investors, workers and businesses in class action cases including white-collar crime, antitrust, securities, product safety, and privacy rights. Its current litigation includes helping to represent medical residents in an antitrust case against the "match" system that allows hospitals to overwork young doctors; investors who were defrauded by Enron; and homeowners who purchased defective Entran II heating hoses.

About Dubbin Kravetz
Dubbin & Kravetz, LLP, which is located in Miami, Florida, concentrates its practice in the areas of civil, administrative, and regulatory litigation. Firm principal Samuel J. Dubbin was formerly Special Assistant to Attorney General Janet Reno and Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Policy Development in the U.S. Justice Department, and Chief Counsel to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the Department of Transportation. In addition to the firm˝s commercial and governmental practice, Dubbin & Kravetz currently represents Holocaust survivors and heirs with claims against major European insurance companies, as well as a national coalition of Holocaust Survivor organizations involved with the recovery and allocation of Holocaust restitution funds. Mr. Dubbin previously served as a member of the Florida Supreme Court Nominating Commission, and the Florida Transportation Commission.

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