"Gold Train" Finally Arrives For Hungarian Holocaust Survivors
But, last week through the efforts of Congressman Anthony Weiner, who worked to get a negotiated settlement, the United Jewish Organization and others, those victims and their families finally got the first funds in a distribution settlement with the U.S.
This is the story of the Hungarian Gold Train - and it's the bittersweet final chapter was written in Brooklyn.
"Thirty-five hundred Holocaust survivors fought for too long for justice," Weiner said in the announcement of the settlement in Williamsburg on August 16. "And it's a battle they never should have had to fight. Those who endured the suffering of the Holocaust did not deserve the added pain of a protracted fight to claim what was rightfully theirs"
In addition to systematically exterminating the Jews of Europe, the Nazis plundered all they could from their victims, and the victims in Hungary were no different.
The Nazis and the pro-Nazi government of Hungary stole heirlooms, fine art and other possessions from the Hungarian Jewish community, and loaded them onto a train - the so called "Hungarian Gold Train."
In 1945, at the end of World War II, the U.S. Army intercepted the 24-car freight train in Austria. On board they found an estimated $200 million in valuables belonging to Hungarian Jews, but the property was never returned to its rightful owners.
In fact, some was requisitioned for the personal use of U.S. generals and others. Many items were auctioned in 1948 by the U.S. government while the rest was lost or destroyed.
In May of 2001, Hungarian Holocaust survivors sued the federal government in a class action suit, seeking compensation for their loss. Instead of paying a debt which was decades overdue, the United States immediately resorted to denial and legal maneuvering, adding to the pain and suffering of the Gold Train survivors.
The Department of Justice sought to dismiss the case, claiming that the statute of limitations had passed and that survivors lacked "due diligence."
"It was an abysmal failure of the country's moral duty to right this wrong," Weiner said.
In October 2003, Weiner called on then Attorney General Ashcroft to resolve the suit quickly and fairly, to no avail. Fifteen months later, Weiner hoped for a more receptive audience with Attorney General-nominee Alberto Gonzales, and led an eleven-member Congressional delegation who urged the United States to reach a swift and equitable resolution to the case.
A breakthrough finally came last September when the U.S. government announced that it had reached a $25.5 million settlement with the approximately 3,500 Holocaust survivors seeking restitution.
The settlement will provide $21 million for social service programs over five years for Hungarian Holocaust survivors and their heirs. An additional $500,000 will go to an archival project to collect documents and artifacts relating to the case. The remaining funds will cover attorneys' fees and compensation to named plaintiffs.
The settlement is long overdue justice, justice that Hungarian Jews in New York City can celebrate as the first $4.2 million funds social services - medical assistance, home care or emergency cash assistance - at non-profit organizations.
Of the $4.2 million, more than half a million dollars has gone directly to New York City organizations serving Holocaust survivors.
The payouts will continue for four more years, through 17 national Jewish social service agencies in communities with more than 12,000 Hungarian survivors.
After decades of wrangling, this story has finally come to a close and the Gold Train has figuratively pulled into the station. Neil S. Friedman