WASHINGTON (Dec. 21)
Hungarian Holocaust survivors who sued the U.S. government are prepared to settle for a fraction of the worth of looted property they say U.S. troops mishandled after the war. Survivors were not “overjoyed” by Monday’s deal in the “Gold Train” case, said one of the lead plaintiffs, Alex Moskovic. Still, they were glad to bring an end to a chapter of Holocaust history that stained the U.S. reputation as a rescuer and not an exploiter.
“We spent quite a few years on this and I feel we needed a closure on this,” said Moskovic, who in 1945, at age 14, returned to his hometown of Sobrance, the sole survivor of a wealthy family. His house was trashed, and he had no idea what had happened to its belongings.
Plaintiffs and negotiators were proscribed from discussing Monday’s settlement until it is finalized within the next 60 days, but one person at the negotiating table confirmed a report in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper that the amount was $25 million.
That’s substantially less than $200 million or so in 1945 dollars — or some $2 billion in today’s reckoning — originally estimated to have been looted from Hungarian Jews by the Nazis and placed on 24 boxcars for transport to Germany.
U.S. forces seized the train in October 1945, but almost none of the property was returned to its owners. Some went to governments, some apparently went to the wrong individuals and some was requisitioned by high-ranking U.S. troops entranced by the art masterpieces.
The fate of the Gold Train property was uncovered in a 1999 report issued by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States.
Plaintiffs who sued in 2001 sought $300 million: $10,000 each for 30,000 survivors and their estates, the maximum compensation allowed under U.S. law.
Instead, the $25 million will go only to living survivors, not to heirs of those who have died. One estimate is that there are 3,500 survivors. That breaks down to just over $7,000 a survivor, though insiders say each survivor will get only about $2,000.
It’s not clear where the rest will go, though lawyers will take a percentage and Jewish groups might stake a claim.
Filed in a federal court in Miami — a high concentration of Hungarian Holocaust survivors live in south Florida — the suit reached a stalemate and threatened to devolve into the kind of ugly assessments of how much Jews were worth during the Holocaust that have characterized similar cases in Europe.
A few months ago, Judge Patricia Seitz referred the case for mediation to Fred Fielding, a prominent Washington lawyer who helped negotiate compensation after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Negotiators said several factors played into the decision to accept the settlement: Virtually no one could prove that his or her property was actually on the Gold Train, which probably represented just a fraction of all the property Nazis stole from Hungarian Jews.
“I have no proof,” Moskovic said. “I couldn’t recognize the property now, it’s not even there to remember, and after 60 years, who remembers?”
Additionally, only a small percentage was “requisitioned” by U.S. troops. As for the remainder, while its handling — it was given to governments for a redistribution that never took place — was hugely misguided, it was done in good faith.
All parties said the real significance of the settlement was the acknowledgment of responsibility — though not guilt — that the U.S. government will undertake in letters to survivors.
“Any monetary settlement is symbolic,” said Sam Dubbin, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. “The case had much more to do with historical reckoning.”
The plaintiffs argued that the United States could hardly deny such claims, considering the U.S. role in recent years in forcing other governments to live up to their moral responsibility to Holocaust survivors.
“This settlement is not about restituting money, it’s about restituting history,” said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, which was involved in the negotiations. “This is a moral step by the U.S. to acknowledge the past.”
Another figure involved in the negotiations, Rabbi Israel Singer, emphasized that the United States was not on the same moral plane as European nations that were complicit in the Holocaust, such as Germany, or those dealing with the legacy of collaborationist governments, like the Dutch or French, or that played a role in keeping Jewish survivors from their rightful property, like the Swiss.
“The United States saved these people’s lives. The war ended sooner because of U.S. intervention,” said Singer, who is chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress. “We have to take notice of this.”
In Holocaust-era compensation issues, he said, “The United States can’t be compared to any other entity except Israel, where we’re trying to get Holocaust-era money from banks.”
The government decision to settle a case that the Justice Department always saw as weak was spurred by intense congressional activism. The politicians who made the case for the survivors applauded the deal.
“Holocaust survivors have achieved the justice so long denied them,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who wrote Karl Rove, President Bush’s top political adviser, just before the November election, urging him to help bring the matter to a close.
“It is only right that after a decade of pushing Europeans to provide restitution to survivors, the United States will do so as well,” said Ros-Lehtinen, who was at the Miami courthouse when Monday’s decision was announced.
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) also applauded the deal but said it should never have made its way through the courts.
“The Department of Justice had no business contesting this case, let alone letting it drag on for three years,” he said.
Moskovic said he had nothing against the United States and was grateful for the life it had given him — two sons, three grandchildren and an Emmy Award for post-production editing at ABC Sports.
What concerned him, he said, were those who were not so lucky — the destitute among the survivors.
“My main concern is the needy survivors from Hungary. They need the help,” he said. “Most of the people at the courthouse feel the same way.”