(KRT) Settling a lawsuit with Hungarian survivors of the Holocaust, the U.S. government agreed Friday to pay $25.5 million and acknowledge U.S. Army officers' plunder of Jewish valuables from the Nazi Gold Train during the waning days of World War II.
Terms of the settlement were spelled out in hundreds of court documents filed in U.S. District Court in Miami. According to the court papers, the government will issue the public acknowledgment later this year, after U.S. District Court Judge Patricia Seitz finalizes the settlement.
"This is a moral and ethical victory," said Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress in New York. "It sets the historical record straight."
Singer also heads the Conference on Jewish Material Claims, which will recommend which humanitarian organizations will share $21 million from the settlement fund.
The Gold Train, 29 boxcars laden with a three tons of artwork, china, silver, antiques and other Jewish heirlooms seized by the Nazis, left Budapest on Dec. 15, 1944, headed to Switzerland as Russian troops advanced. The train got as far as the Austrian village of Werfen, where the Nazis abandoned it. American soldiers captured the train on May 16, 1945.
What happened next became the basis of the first Holocaust restitution case against the United States. The lawsuit, filed in 2001, survived several legal hurdles, and last year Seitz appointed a mediator, Washington lawyer Fred Fielding, who had served on the Sept. 11 Commission.
Under the settlement terms, individual plaintiffs will not receive any money. The court papers stated that the parties agreed it would be impossible to prove who had valuables on the train and impractical to divide $25.5 million among an estimated 60,000 Hungarian survivors.
Instead, $21 million is slated for charities and agencies serving the survivors, $3.85 million for legal fees, and $500,000 to set up historical archives. The government also agreed to declassify records pertaining to the Gold Train.
"This case was never about the money," Miami lawyer Sam Dubbin said. "It was about having a reckoning with history."
Reaction from his clients was restrained.
"I'm not cheering yet. I am optimistic," said survivor Alex Moscovic, of Hobe Sound, Fla., who is active in survivors groups. "The $25.5 million is just peanuts. The whole issue was not about money."
He wants to hear an apology. "For this agreement to go through, they will have to give an apology to the survivors, that what they did was all wrong," Moscovic said.
"I think that acknowledgment should be out today," said David Mermelstein of Miami. "I'm happy that finally we will have our closure so we can move on with our lives without having to carry this burden."
A commission set up by former President Clinton concluded in 1999 that U.S. Army generals and other officers helped themselves to Gold Train loot, decorating their homes and offices as they oversaw the rebuilding of Europe after World War II.
The commission's findings, based on previously classified material from the National Archives, provided the backbone for the lawsuit.
As the case moved through the courts, the Bush administration and Justice Department were accused of foot-dragging and came under increasing political pressure to resolve the case.
On Friday, reaction poured in from legislators who had urged the government to settle:
Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who led a bipartisan push, applauded the settlement.
"It's tremendously important for the government to acknowledge that these Holocaust survivors were defrauded and cheated," Specter said. "This settlement brings to an end one of the most significant outstanding issues in our national effort to insure justice for Holocaust survivors."
Said Clinton: "While nothing can heal the wounds suffered by many of these survivors, I am grateful and relieved that our government is providing long overdue redress to these aging men and women."
In a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, Singer said money the government pays "will enable help to be extended to many elderly Hungarian Jewish Nazi victims."
The settlement fund will be distributed according to the population of Hungarian survivors of the Holocaust - 40 percent in Israel, 22 percent in Hungary, 21 percent in the United States and 7 percent in Canada, according to the court documents.
The parties are to appear Thursday before Seitz. If the judge gives initial approval to the proposal, individual plaintiffs will be given an opportunity to voice objections at future hearings. If things go smoothly, the settlement will be finalized in October.