Train of Heartbreak
Victims of the Holocaust have pursued legal efforts for years to obtain restitution from foreign governments and private companies for the injuries they caused or the property they stole from Jews and others throughout Europe during World War II.
In a unique twist, however, the latest claim–a class action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on behalf of Hungarian Jews–names the United States as defendant.
In Rosner v. United States, No. 01-1859 (Oct. 31, 2003), the plaintiffs contend that members of the U.S. Army looted the prized possessions of Hungarian Holocaust survivors at the end of the war, and that the government covered up the thefts for more than half a century.
The case puts the U.S. government in an awkward position, says Lucille Roussin, director of the Holocaust Restitution Claims Practicum at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City.
“I think the United States, having admonished every other country in the world, finds itself in the uncomfortable position of being negligent,” Roussin says. “If [the government] didn’t act outright illegally, it was certainly negligent not to have followed through and restituted these objects to the Hungarian Jewish community.”
The property was confiscated in 1944 by the pro-Nazi Hungarian government when it rounded up an estimated 725,000 Jews and sent them to concentration camps. Their possessions–gold, silver, diamonds, Oriental rugs, artwork, silverware and china–were loaded onto freight cars that became known as the Gold Train. The train and its contents–valued in excess of $1 billion in today’s dollars–were captured in May 1945 by U.S. troops in Austria.
The suit contends that U.S. authorities rejected pleas by Holocaust survivors and the postwar Hungarian government for the return of the Gold Train’s contents. Instead, U.S. authorities designated the property as uniden- tifiable, even though the Jewish Property Commission of the wartime Hungarian government had made a meticulous accounting of the items taken from the families that were rounded up.
Recovery Is No Sure Thing
The plaintiffs have submitted documents in court supporting their contention that much of the property from the Gold Train ended up at the headquarters of high-ranking U.S. Army officers and other members of the military. Other items were simply stolen. In 1948, much of what remained was taken to New York City and auctioned off to support a United Nations refugee group.
Other documents indicate that the Americans could have at one point identified at least some of the property owners, says Samuel J. Dubbin of Miami, one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs in the case.
“The U.S. had a responsibility to return that property,” says Dubbin. “Hungary asked for the property to be returned. The U.S. told the Hungarian Jews it was not identifiable. That was a lie.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice said the government will not comment on the case.
The suit was originally filed in 2001 after the government released documents relating to the Gold Train. The government sought dismissal on several grounds, including lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, sovereign immunity and an expired statute of limitations. The district court in Miami rejected those arguments and gave the plaintiffs permission to file an amended complaint.
Federal law allows each plaintiff to claim up to $10,000 in restitution, but they are seeking approval from the court to pursue even higher damages under the takings clause. The class could eventually total more than 30,000 members, according to Dubbin. The case is far from a sure thing for the plaintiffs, says Washington, D.C., lawyer Michael Hausfeld, who has worked on a number of Holocaust cases. One of the toughest issues is whether the plaintiffs will be able to prove an ownership link to items that were on the Gold Train, he says.
“They need to establish a causable, traceable relationship between what was taken and what was on the train, and their claim to it,” he says. “These are not insignificant problems.”