Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2012

Abstract

In 1944-45, the Nazis seized personal belongings of the Hungarian Jewish population and dispatched some of the most valuable of them on a train. The United States Army took control of this "Gold Train" and gave reassurances that it would keep the valuables safe. However, the items were plundered by individual soldiers, including officers, and diverted to various uses. After decades of dormancy, a Presidential Commission exposed the facts, but the government still did not right the wrong — until there was litigation.

The "Gold Train" case (Rosner v. United States) represents a measure of justice for the victimized community of Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivors. This case is one of the most successful human rights class actions ever brought against the United States. It teaches important lessons regarding future human rights cases, especially those against the United States. These lessons concern both the legal doctrines in such cases and strategic questions about how to mobilize the public's sympathy for human rights victims injured by the United States abroad.

Survivors and descendants of Hungarian Jews brought this class action against the United States to seek restitution because their valuables were seized by the Nazis in 1945 and subsequently loaded on a train which came into United States Army control. The valuables were disposed of by grants to international organizations, sale, waste, and looting, rather than being returned to the owners. Strategically, Hungarian Jewry, as Holocaust-era victims, had the sympathy of American Jewry, a group whose voice would help bring about a just settlement. The Rosner settlement obliged the United States to devote $25 million to the needs of this class of Holocaust victims.

There is much more to the Gold Train case than meets the eye, and the litigation took many unanticipated turns over five years of preparation, research, litigation, negotiation, and settlement. Doctrinally and strategically the route to obtaining justice was anything but simple. The underlying events occurred in far flung locales — Hungary, Austria, France, London, New York, Budapest, Israel, and Washington, DC, among others over 55 years before the case was brought. Both factual and legal questions posed major challenges.