US to pay $25.5 million to settle WWII 'Gold Train' lawsuit

The Miami Herald 11 March 2005
Noah Bierman

The U.S. government formally agreed on Friday to pay $25.5 million to redress a controversial historical incident -- the American military's seizure of Nazi loot stolen from Hungarian Jews.

The government later auctioned off much of the property to fund refugee relief efforts, rather than trying to return the possessions to their owners, who were either dead or scattered around Europe.

The so-called ''Gold Train'' incident gained widespread notice more than a half century after it happened, the result of a presidential commission and a lawsuit filed by Hungarian Jews in Miami federal court in 2001. Many of the Holocaust survivors who filed the suit had long since emigrated to the United States and elsewhere. Some settled in South Florida.

Friday's settlement proposal will allot $25 million to cover basic humanitarian services -- including health care -- for Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivors throughout the world.

Individual plaintiffs will not receive payments.

The settlement also includes $500,000 to build and maintain an archive documenting the destruction of the Hungarian Jewish community as well as the Gold Train incident. A panel of three experts will choose a major Holocaust museum, still undetermined, to house it.

The United States government has not made a formal apology.

''It's going to be addressed in the future, but it's the government's own discretion,'' said Sam Dubbin, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs.

The Department of Justice issued a statement saying the government was ''very pleased'' about the settlement.

''Once the settlement is approved by the U.S. district court judge, the U.S. government will issue an appropriate statement of acknowledgement,'' department spokesman Charles Miller told The Herald, declining further comment.

The settlement, which still requires approval of U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz, will not erase the memories of elderly Holocaust survivors who filed it. But it will ensure the U.S. government acknowledges its role in the incident.

''For a lot of people, the settlement was about documenting the history and making it available,'' said Dubbin. ``At the same time, the monetary relief is very significant and will help a large number of elderly Hungarian Holocaust survivors who are in great need.''

The road to completing the settlement continues next week, when Seitz will likely hold a hearing to consider preliminary approval. Then notices will go out to members of the class of people represented in the suit, before Seitz holds another hearing to consider possible objections.

The settlement calls for relief money to go to existing agencies that serve Holocaust survivors. Using a survey, lawyers and survivors will distribute the money in geographic proportion to the survivor population.

The story of the Gold Train begins before World War II, a period of comfortable assimilation for many Hungarian Jews. Those of status owned the finer things -- paintings, Oriental rugs, jewelry, gold.

During the war, Nazis plundered the Jewish homes and loaded goods onto 40 train cars bound for Germany. But the Gold Train was turned over to American liberators in Austria in 1945, soon after the May 8 victory. Rather than return the goods to their owners, as U.S. policy required, they were diverted. Some wound up in generals' hands, according to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets. Others were sold for refugee relief.

The U.S. government's acts came to light only decades later, as the advisory commission did extensive research into Holocaust survivors' claims around the world.

When survivors learned the U.S. government's role, many greeted the news with mixed emotions. They were grateful to the American liberators, but disappointed to be victims yet again. Many were further disappointed that the military chose not to disclose the information.

As the civil case preceded, government lawyers have denied the Holocaust Commission report. It has also been difficult for plaintiffs -- who may number in the tens of thousands -- to prove exactly what was missing and where it wound up.

Dubbin said the cap on legal fees that the attorneys agreed to seek is ``substantially below what the law will allow and substantially less than the time we spent to prosecute the case.''
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