Attorneys for the federal government and Hungarian Holocaust survivors agreed Tuesday that they have made "substantial progress" toward settling a lawsuit over the Army's alleged plunder of Jewish valuables at the end of World War II.
In 1945, the suit contends, U.S. troops looted the Hungarian Gold Train of valuables the Nazis seized from 800,000 Hungarian Jews. The suit further charges that the U.S. government covered up the scandal for decades.
Hearings in the case were scheduled Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz, but the eleventh-hour settlement hopes postponed the court date. Among the legal issues before the judge is the U.S. Justice Department's third request to dismiss the lawsuit on technical grounds.
Both sides asked for the delay. Court papers filed in Miami stated:
"The parties have been engaged in ongoing mediation and over the past several days have made substantial progress towards a possible resolution of this matter. The parties submit that postponing the hearing will allow these discussions to continue going forward."
Washington lawyer Fred Fielding, who was a member of the September 11 commission, is in Miami mediating the talks. Attorneys declined to discuss the negotiations, citing a gag order.
The lawsuit, filed three years ago, seeks up to $10,000 each for thousands of Hungarian Holocaust survivors. It has not yet achieved class action status.
The 29 boxcars laden with Jewish treasures were headed from Hungary to Austria ahead of advancing Soviet troops in the days after Germany surrendered. U.S. troops took control of the train, promising to protect the cargo. Instead, some of the treasures wound up decorating officers' clubs and villas, some sold at auction and some simply disappeared.
In 1999, the Presidential Advisory Commission of Holocaust Assets exposed the scandal in a published report that provided the backbone of the federal lawsuit.
The government has been under mounting political pressure to settle the suit.
Last week, plaintiffs David Mermelstein, Baruch Epstein and Alex Moskovic wrote President Bush, asking him to personally intervene.
"The Hungarian Holocaust survivors are no longer young," says the letter, dated Sunday. "Many of us are ill. Many have little money. Our lives would have been far easier had we been given our property when the United States had it and hid it."
Epstein said Tuesday that appealing directly to Bush was "another little nudge, another little letter that keeps this whole thing alive. We would be more than glad to settle the whole situation." White House spokesman Taylor Gross responded that the letter had been received, adding that the government is participating in the court-ordered mediation "to see if the matter can be resolved amicably."
Earlier this month, Sen. John Kerry weighed in during a presidential campaign stop, accusing the Bush administration of "dragging its feet." Also in the chorus of political voices urging settlement are a bipartisan group of 17 senators and the Florida congressional delegation.