Holocaust victim seeks reparations from the U.S.

Lawsuit claims soldiers looted Jewish valuables

November 16, 2003|By Ron Grossman | Ron Grossman,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Six decades later, Veronika Baum is rendered almost speechless with rage by recounting what happened during the final days of World War II.

"How could they do such a thing?" said Baum, 72, who lives on New York's Upper West Side.

Born into a well-to-do Budapest family, she saw her parents sent to concentration camps and their property confiscated, like that of other Jews, by Hitler's Hungarian allies. Now she has gone to court seeking compensation in one of a series of lawsuits filed in recent years by Holocaust survivors. But Baum's case is different; she isn't suing the Germans or Hungarians.

She is going after the U.S. government.

Baum and her fellow plaintiffs allege that what the Hungarian fascists stole from them subsequently was plundered by American soldiers. Their attorneys say it was an episode of looting on a large scale that was hushed up at the time and that Washington has tried to keep a lid on ever since.

Baum discovered the final chapter in the saga of her family's property only last year. Last week, her attorney provided a federal court with new details about the case.

Baum's father perished in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; her mother came back from the Ravensbruck camp with typhus; Baum, who was confined to the Budapest ghetto, was emaciated when the fighting ended. The family was left penniless, so even a small fraction of their prewar wealth would have eased their hardships, said Baum, who immigrated to the United States in 1956.

What she didn't know then was that, at the end of the war and with the Russian army closing in on them, Hungarian officials loaded railroad car after railroad car with crates of valuables - gold, silver, furs, works of art - taken from the country's Jews. Then they made a run for it on what came to be known as the Gold Train.

U.S. soldiers intercepted the Gold Train in Austria in 1945. Rejecting the pleas of Hungary's postwar government and Hungarian-Jewish survivors that the property be returned, American officials proclaimed the train's contents "unidentifiable." Some U.S. soldiers interpreted that decision as an invitation to help themselves, with the scavenging beginning at the very top of the chain of command, documents show.

Among the supporting documents submitted to a federal court by Baum's attorneys is an Army memo dated Aug. 28, 1945, requisitioning china, silver and linens to furnish the occupation headquarters of Gen. Harry Collins, the U.S. commander in the area.

"Army officers in charge treated the Gold Train, just as Nazi generals did when they occupied Europe, as theirs for the taking," said attorney Steve Berman, who represents Baum and other Holocaust survivors in Case No. 01-1859-CIV, Irving Rosner et al, Plaintiffs vs. United States of America, Defendant.

Other officers followed Collins' lead. One general was given rugs, linens and silverware; another got a silver set and silver plates for his quarters in Salzburg, Austria. The lieutenant colonel in charge of filling those requisitions noted in a memo that property parceled out from the Gold Train's horde was worth "a substantial sum of money."

Berman said that, in contradiction to the Army's claim that the Gold Train's contents were "unidentifiable," some of the loot bore clear signs of the rightful owners. A group of officers from the 42nd Division, according to contemporary documents, received a chest "bearing name of Gergely Henrik." Another general received a silver set with service for 10 marked with a name and address: "Dr. Otto Arodi, Tokai No. 19."

Not every American official on the scene in the 1940s condoned the pilfering. Early in the war, the United States realized that the Nazis were stripping art museums and seizing Jewish property across Europe. The U.S. established an agency within the military charged with seeing that loot was returned. One member of the group, Fine Arts Officer Evelyn Tucker, realized what was taking place in postwar Austria and wrote to a stateside superior, "There was no control then on what American officers sent home, and there is very little now."

Despite Tucker's report, the Army remained in official denial - even as recently as a few years ago, according to historian Jonathan Petropoulos. An expert on the fate of artwork during World War II, Petropoulos served on the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, established by the Clinton administration when the issue heated up in the 1990s.

At the plaintiffs' request, Petropoulos submitted an affidavit in the Gold Train case.

"In the end, and for political reasons," Petropoulos said in his affidavit, "the Army's criticism of the progress report meant that the final report would be less overtly critical of the military and its handling of the Gold Train."

Petropoulos said the Army's handling of the Gold Train case is curious because the United States generally played an admirable role in returning property to its rightful owners after World War II. In most cases, American soldiers who got caught pillaging were punished, noted Petropoulos, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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