Stepping up his bid for Jewish votes in Florida, Senator John Kerry accused the Bush administration Monday of “dragging its feet” on the contentious Hungarian Gold Train case, a Holocaust restitution suit against America’s government that is moving through federal court in Miami.
Hungarian Holocaust survivors brought the class-action case in 2001. They are seeking compensation for a trainload of valuables, looted by the Nazis, that came under the control of the U.S. Army shortly after World War II and then vanished. The federal judge in the case appointed a mediator to negotiate a settlement earlier this year, after the administration came under bipartisan criticism for delaying tactics.
In joining the critics, Kerry appears to be tapping into a reservoir of resentment among Holocaust survivors and their advocates, who say the administration has neglected the restitution effort on numerous fronts, failed to name a top-level Holocaust issues negotiator and lost the momentum that had been achieved during the Clinton administration.
The most explosive charge is that the administration effectively dropped pressure on Poland — home to Europe’s largest prewar Jewish community and the only European nation that has not enacted restitution laws for private property — because of a desire to secure Polish support in the Iraq war. Poland currently has 2,500 troops in Iraq.
“Everybody that I speak to tells me, ‘Don’t expect to get help as long as Bush depends on Polish help in Iraq,’” said Jehuda Evron, president of the New York-based Holocaust Restitution Committee, which has initiated a class-action suit against the Polish government.
Several restitution advocates confirmed that rumors of such a deal with Poland were rife within the survivor community, but none claimed to have firsthand knowledge.
The Kerry campaign has not raised the alleged Polish-Iraqi linkage in its attacks on the administration. The Clinton administration’s chief negotiator for Holocaust-era issues, Stuart Eizenstat, who has been active in the Kerry campaign, said this week that he had not been privy to the discussions about Poland. But he added: “One can imagine that with the Iraq war, it would not be the most conducive environment to move forward.”
Evron, the survivor leader, called himself an undecided “swing voter.” He said that while Bush’s handling of restitution issues would not be the sole factor in his decision, it would color his thinking.
“We went into Iraq to protect the human rights,” Evron said, “but what about the human rights of the survivors?”
Eizenstat, who served as the Clinton administration’s special representative for Holocaust-era issues, has long been critical of the Bush administration for failing to replace him with a Holocaust envoy of comparable rank.
In a conference call organized by the Kerry campaign this week, Eizenstat blasted the Bush administration over its handling of the Gold Train case, comparing it to the delaying tactics of European countries.
“The U.S. should hardly be in the position when the tables are turned on us that we should then try to rely on the defenses [that European countries have used]. Unfortunately the Ashcroft and Bush Justice Department did just that.”
Fred Zeidman, a Republican insider who is also involved in Holocaust-era issues, defended the administration.
“I think that the White House is very aware of this issue, and I think they’re dealing with it in a responsible manner,” Zeidman said.
The case involves some 24 boxcars loaded with gold and personal effects that were looted by the Nazis from Hungarian Jews and fell into U.S. Army hands after the war.
In 1999, a presidential commission reported that American officials had mishandled the effects, and later investigations have found evidence of looting by American troops. The survivors brought their case in 2001; since then, the Justice Department has repeatedly filed motions to have the case dismissed on grounds that the federal government was not liable. The judge, Patricia Seitz, has turned down the motions.
Last July, a bipartisan group of 27 members of the House of Representatives wrote to Attorney General John Ashcroft and said the government’s handling of the case has “come to resemble the treatment survivors regularly receive from many foreign governments while seeking restitution.”
The politicization of the case was criticized by historian Ronald Zweig, author of “The Gold Train,” and an expert witness for the Justice Department. He said the facts in the case are not as clear-cut as the Kerry campaign makes it appear.
“The facts, not politics, should determine this case,” said Zweig, a professor at New York University. “The American government did nothing wrong for which it needs to pay compensation now in the Hungarian Gold Train case. However, if the U.S. government chooses to make an ex gratia payment to these Holocaust survivors, its generosity can only be applauded.”
Eizenstat recommended a solution out of court during the conference call on Monday. He also told the Forward that if Kerry should be elected, he would encourage the incoming administration to name a top-level Holocaust negotiator. Eizenstat would be a prime candidate for that position, though he said he would not “start speculating on what I would or wouldn’t do” if asked to take the role.
Bush administration officials have claimed that State Department officials in charge of the issue adequately handle the American role in advancing restitution.
The Gold Train case has been carefully monitored by the survivor community, but the larger issue of Eizenstat not being replaced has been a particular concern for survivor groups. The executive director of the National Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, Leo Rechter, said: “We are very much in favor that there should be another appointee like under Clinton.” But Rechter added: “We hate to get involved in politics, because there are good people on both sides.”