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Behind the Headlines: Admission That U.S. Looted Property May Convince Others to Come Clean

A new account of how U.S. soldiers at the end of World War II looted a train filled with Hungarian Jews’ property may prompt other countries to search dark chapters of their own histories in an attempt to make restitution.

That is the assessment of several members of the presidential commission that researched the fate of the “Hungarian Gold Train,” which was filled with Jewish property stolen by the Nazis that later ended up in the hands of U.S. servicemen.

“I think we knew when this commission was set up there would be some dark spots on our own record,” said U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, who also serves as the Clinton administration’s point man on Holocaust restitution issues.

However, Eizenstat, who sits on the commission, stressed that the panel’s openness in detailing those spots will “send a strong signal” to similar commissions in other countries.

“The worst thing we can do is suppress things because it’s a U.S. issue,” said Miles Lerman, the chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and a member of the commission.

“The more windows you open, the more air you let in, the healthier the process,” he added.

The Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States said last week it uncovered documents detailing how U.S. infantry forces on May 16, 1945, seized a train in Werfen, Austria, that was filled with paintings, rugs, china, gold, watches and other valuables looted from Hungarian Jews by the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators.

This account of the American looting comes several years after the United States and Jewish groups began pressing Swiss banks and other European banks and companies to make restitution for the valuables and labor that was stolen from European Jewry.

The report, which is preliminary, buttresses those efforts because it “indicates that we are not afraid to look at our own government,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, which has been pressing foreign countries to return Nazi-looted property to their rightful owners.

While international law and U.S. policy required the return of looted arts and cultural items to the governments of the countries from which they were taken, U.S. officials decided that the origin and ownership of the valuables on the train were “not identifiable,” according to the report released last week by the commission.

Hungarian Jewish leaders at the time criticized the decision, arguing that if they had access to the contents of the train they could help restitute the property.

Last Friday, one day after the report was issued, Hungary’s Jewish leaders said they will seek to have the looted treasures returned to their rightful owners.

While much of the assets were auctioned in New York with proceeds going to refugee organizations, many other items such as rugs, china and crystal were simply taken by top American generals to display in their homes and offices, according to the report.

The whereabouts of those objects are unknown.

Other less valuable objects such as watches, jewelry and cameras were sold in U.S. Army Exchange stores.

Other property was stolen from military warehouses.

Researchers for the commission also concluded that 1,181 paintings on the train were returned to Austria rather than to Hungary, their country of origin, in part because the United States was leery of Hungary’s move toward Communist rule and because U.S. officials may have wanted Austria, which they considered Nazi-occupied territory, to have valuables to use in war claim negotiations.

The artworks’ whereabouts are currently unknown.

Ernst Bacher, an Austrian cultural official, has told the commission that “a portion of this property had been restituted,” but he did not provide researchers with any specifics, according to Jonathan Petropoulos, head of the commission’s research team investigating art and cultural property.

Asked about possible restitution by the United States in light of the report’s findings, Steinberg said the return of the paintings to Austria rather than to Hungary raises some questions.

There is “no indication that they have been restituted,” Steinberg said of the artworks.

The commission, which was created last year, was charged with investigating the fate of Holocaust-era assets that came under the control of the United States and providing the president with recommendations for further action. It does not have the authority to make restitution itself.

“We do believe when we find the truth we have to do something about it,” said Stu Loeser, the commission’s spokesman.

He added that the commission may recommend to the president that the United States make restitution payments.

Loeser said the commission has opened a research office at the Center for Military History at Fort McNair in Washington and will try to locate former American servicemen who may know what happened to the property that was stolen from the train.

The commission also said it will “search for individual claims made by Hungarian victims and try to determine if survivors or their heirs have also made efforts to regain their property.”

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