WASHINGTON (Mar. 15)
After four years of battling the U.S. government over reparations, Hungarian Holocaust survivors are settling for an apology and extra care for the more destitute among them. Plaintiffs in the “Gold Train” case settled last week for $25.5 million, the bulk of which will go to welfare programs for Hungarian Holocaust survivors in need.
The key for plaintiffs in settling the case was the U.S. Justice Department’s pledge to acknowledge wrongdoing, said Alex Moskovic, one of the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit.
“We expected much more, but we needed closure,” said, Moskovic, a retired ABC sports editor who now lives in Hobe Sound, Fla. “The funds are not as important as closure and an apology from the U.S. government that it was wrong.”
In October 1945, U.S. forces seized 24 boxcars of Hungarian Jewish property that had been looted by the Nazis. Almost none of the property was returned to its owners. Some went to governments, some apparently went to the wrong people and some was requisitioned by high-ranking U.S. troops entranced by art masterpieces and expensive housewares.
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.
Moskovic was 14 in 1945 when he returned to his hometown of Sobrance in what is now Slovakia, the sole survivor of a wealthy family. His house was trashed, and he had no idea what had happened to its belongings.
According to attorneys for the plaintiffs, a key element in the decision to accept the offered figure was evidence suggesting that earlier estimates — which reached $200 million in 1945 dollars or $2 billion in today’s dollars — were exaggerated. The Nazis had removed some of the most valuable items before U.S. troops got the train, experts for both sides said.
In the end, U.S. authorities probably controlled between $6.5 million to $13 million worth of property — or $65 million to $130 million in today’s dollars.
The plaintiffs originally sought $300 million.
Moskovic said the aging of the Holocaust survivor community was also a factor in the decision not to fight for a full reckoning.
“If we don’t settle now, it goes back to court and start from square one,” he said. “What about those survivors who need help now?”
The U.S. role in defeating the Nazis also contributed to the decision to end proceedings now, said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, which will coordinate the distribution of the funds.
“Ultimately, the United States saved thousands upon thousands of Jews,” he said. “This was a small chapter in the history of that time. It deserves recognition but the whole history should be remembered.”
The Claims Conference will distribute at least $21 million of the money around the world, split up according to the number of Hungarian Jewish survivors. More than 40 percent of the money will go to Israel; another 42 percent will be split between American and Hungarian Jewish communities; and the rest will be split between Canada, Australia and other countries.
The Claims Conference will consult on projects for needy survivors with a committee set up by the plaintiffs.
There are an estimated 62,000 survivors. Lawyers’ fees are capped at $3.8 million, or 15 percent — half the usual 30 percent take in class action lawsuits. Heirs do not have any claim, but are represented in $500,000 to be set aside for an archive commemorating the Gold Train. Another $150,000 will go to individual plaintiffs who gave up time for the case; no more than $5,000 will be paid to any one of those plaintiffs.
Disbursement will begin some time after Oct. 3, the deadline for the settlement’s final approval by the federal court in Miami, where the case was filed. The U.S. apology is expected to come after that deadline as well.