Legal settlement expected in WWII Gold Train looting

Chicago Tribune 17 February 2005
Christine Spolar

BUDAPEST, Hungary -- Seventy-nine-year-old Eva Csontos just wants the American military to do the right thing: Admit that, in the sorry days after World War II, U.S. troops took advantage of the chaos and plundered gold, art and valuables from her and thousands of other Hungarian Jews.

"They must have known," said Csontos, who survived a Nazi work camp in Austria only to find after the war that her sister had died at Bergen-Belsen. "Everything was taken from the Jews--first our possessions, then our lives."

When a train packed with gold, art and rugs--40 boxcars of items stolen by the Nazis and their sympathizers--was halted by the U.S. Army in Werfen, Austria, in May 1945, how could the GIs not know or seek the rightful owners? she asked recently.

Instead, as historical documents show, senior U.S. officers stationed in postwar Austria saw the booty of the now-infamous Hungarian Gold Train as their own.

Some officers requisitioned china, silver, rugs and artwork for their bases. The rest of the lode, counted, recorded and for some reason wrongly classified as enemy property, was later sent off to Jewish charities for auction or left for thieves.

This month the U.S. government is poised to recognize a 60-year-old shame. A settlement in a class-action suit filed in U.S. District Court in Florida has been reached, and the U.S. government will reportedly create a fund to be used by needy Hungarian Jews across the world.

No property will be returned to individuals, but the U.S. will pay thousands of dollars for Hungarian Holocaust survivors--about 10,000 in the United States, 15,000 more in Hungary and as many as 25,000 in Israel--as part of the multimillion-dollar deal.

1st U.S. acknowledgment

The settlement, reached in principle in December, is expected to be announced Friday. The deal would mark the first time that the U.S. government, hard-nosed in its negotiations in the 1990s with European countries over Holocaust victims' bank accounts, will acknowledge its handling of Jewish property.

"It was sad," Sam Dubbin, an attorney for the survivors, said about disclosures contained in a 173-page court brief in the case. "You expect more from the United States. But human nature being what it is, it's not inconceivable what happened."

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the settlement.

The Gold Train debacle began with individual instances of grief. Eva Csontos, then 18, was home from university the day that German soldiers knocked on her family's door. The Nazis wanted the Csontos family's spacious home, in the center of the village of Torokszentmiklos, Hungary, as their headquarters. The family was sent to a ghetto in southeast Hungary and then to Nazi camps.

Before the family left, however, Csontos remembered that her father, Pal, a lawyer, obeyed an order from the Nazis and Fascist Hungarians. He deposited all the family valuables--gold bracelets, diamond earrings, inscribed gold wedding rings--at the local bank.

It was, the Nazis told them, for safekeeping. The Csontos family never saw the valuables again.

After the war, the family returned to find their house still standing but bare. Pal Csontos went to the bank to recover what little the family had, only to find the bank vaults empty. The family, with one daughter dead in a death camp, another weighing just 60 pounds and only Eva able to work, had nothing but themselves. To survive, as Eva Csontos remembers, meant to look beyond all the loss.

"Oh, we could have used that jewelry," the gray-haired widow said as she poured coffee for visitors. "Everything was gone. And that's what hurt. We deposited something that should have been returned."

As the Csontos family picked up their lives, there were attempts by Hungarian and Jewish officials to reclaim the contents of the Gold Train. Documents filed in the Florida court detail a pattern of U.S. officials thwarting the claims and concealing the truth about the whereabouts of much of the property.

U.S. claim: Owners unknown

U.S. government documents show that the military and U.S. administrations argued in the months after the war, and then for decades, that the rightful owners could not be found--despite reports by military personnel that much of the material, kept at a warehouse in Salzburg, Austria, was marked with names and addresses.

The suit alleges that younger officers assigned to protect the goods attempted to deflect the demands of top officers. Army records in the suit showed that the young men were often relieved of duty at the warehouse after refusing to spread the wealth.

Several top officers were alleged to have absconded with stolen goods. Maj. Gen. Harry Collins, commander of the operations in western Austria, emerges in court papers as the most notorious. Collins, who later married and lived in Austria, died in 1963.

Court documents show Collins wanted enough china to serve 45 people at formal banquets; high-quality silverware for the same, and wine, highball and champagne glasses for 90. He needed 30 tablecloths, 60 bedsheets and 60 large bath towels. Later, he sought a candelabra, rugs and artwork for his home.

Moral, not legal, issue

The American assault on the Gold Train came to light in 1999 in an initial report issued by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the U.S., which described the postwar looting as a "mysterious example" of an outright failure to follow U.S. restitution policy.

"The U.S. forces generally did an outstanding and scrupulous job" in returning property in Europe, the report said, but the command in Austria had "more difficulties."

For years, the U.S. government repeatedly sought to get the case dismissed on grounds that the losses were decades old and fell outside legal time limits. Members of Congress, legal authorities and survivors argued that restitution was a moral, not a legal, matter.

And time, for many of those who suffered the wrong, was running out.

"As long as you live, you always have hope," said Csontos, who plans to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen camp in April by visiting her sister's grave there. "In 1944, I never thought I'd be living, here, today . . . but I have to say I don't understand why the Americans acted this way. I thought that was all very strange.

"I know I'll never see the jewelry. I'm sure the jewelry was the first thing to be stolen. But that's not really the point, is it?"
© website copyright Central Registry 2024