Chicago Jewish Community Online 19 October 2004
Matthew E Berger
WASHINGTON, Oct. 19 (JTA) -- Progress is apparently being made in efforts to reach a settlement between the U.S. Justice Department and Hungarian-born Jews, who say the U.S. government mishandled their property that was seized from the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Negotiations are going well enough that both parties asked a federal judge Monday evening to postpone the next scheduled hearing on a class-action lawsuit by Holocaust survivors who were victims of the Hungarian Gold Train.
``We feel we are making enough progress to keep talking," said Sam Dubbin, a Florida attorney representing the victims in the suit.
Both sides say they want the hearing postponed until Dec. 1, but Judge Patricia Seitz, a U.S. district court judge in Miami, where the case is being handled, has yet to rule.
A train carrying possessions of 600,000 Holocaust victims -- filling 29 boxcars -- was seized by the United States in October 1945, shortly after the end of World War II.
The items had been confiscated by the Nazis before the Jews were sent to concentration camps.
U.S. officials at the time said they would return the property to Hungary, but some of the property was misplaced, some was used for homes and offices of Army officials and some was auctioned, according to court documents.
Estimates place the value of the property at between $50 million and $120 million in today's currency.
The victims filed suit in May 2001, seeking reparations, and have gained political support from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress for their case.
There are 25 plaintiffs in the case, which could benefit thousands of Hungarian survivors and their heirs, Dubbin said.
There is a $10,000 limit in monetary awards that each beneficiary could receive.
Seitz, the U.S. district court judge, appointed Fred Fielding, a member of the 9/11 Commission, to mediate the case.
Fielding did not return calls requesting comment, and the Justice Department did not respond to an inquiry.
But in its motion to dismiss the case, a motion that is still pending despite the settlement talks, the government suggests there is no proof that the victims' properties are the ones seized by the United States.
``Plaintiffs cannot establish that the property which they are claiming in this lawsuit was on the Gold Train when the U.S. Army took control of the train or that, even if it had been, restituting it to Hungary -- as Plaintiffs argue the United States should have done -- would have enabled them to regain possession of it," the government said in its motion.
Much of the most valuable property had already been taken off, the government argued. And other items had been dispersed, making it impossible to determine the owner of each item.
The Justice Department also says in its brief that the statute of limitations on this case passed decades ago.
The U.S. government said it did not know what had happened to the Gold Train property until 1999, when a report by the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States determined that much of the merchandise was mishandled by the U.S. government.
Later investigations found looting by senior military officials.
The United States has worked to force other foreign countries and companies to pay restitution for possessions seized from Holocaust victims in that era.
The Gold Train victims have found support from numerous lawmakers. Seventeen senators, both Democrats and Republicans, signed a letter in May asking the Justice Department to settle the case.
And Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) sent a letter to Karl Rove, a senior adviser to President Bush, late last month, asking for help in resolving the matter through mediation.
Democratic presidential contender Sen. John Kerry also has called on the Bush administration to resolve the case.
``It is time to honor our obligation to these Holocaust survivors by quickly and fairly settling their claims," Kerry said in a statement. ``Justice for Holocaust survivors is a test of our basic values. It is the right thing to do."
Dubbin said his 25 clients are elderly, and mediation would prevent them from waiting years for reparations, which would likely be the situation if the case continued through the courts.
Baruch Epstein, a plaintiff in the case, said his mother had a receipt for a pocket watch and 99 pieces of gold that his grandfather placed in a bank in Debrechen, Hungary, before being sent to Auschwitz, where he was gassed.
The 71-year-old resident of Hollywood, Fla, said he wished he had at least one piece of gold that he could hand down to his 15-year-old grandson as a family heirloom.
Epstein said he and his sister, who lives in Zurich, had tried to get the property from the Hungarian government before learning what became of property on the Gold Train.
``It is high time for the U.S. government to remove the black patch from itself,'' he said. http://www.juf.org/