Hungarian Gold Train
The Hungarian Gold Train was the case of a Nazi-operated train during World War II that carried stolen valuables, mostly Hungarian Jewish persons' property, from Hungary towards Berlin in 1945. After seizure of the train by American forces, almost none of the valuables were returned to Hungary or their rightful owners or their surviving family members.
With the Soviet Army about 100 miles away from Hungary, on March 7, 1944, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Margarethe—the invasion of Hungary. The Arrow Cross Party – the fascist government of Hungary, led by Ferenc Szálasi – collaborated with their Nazi occupiers in forcing the estimated 800,000 Jewish citizens of Hungary to hand over all of their valuables to government officials. This included gems, golden jewelry, wedding rings and anything else considered to be of high monetary value. After they handed over their property, everything was put into individual bags and boxes which identified the owners and receipts were issued. After a majority of the Hungarian Jews were shipped to concentration camps, mostly to Auschwitz-Birkenau where most were murdered, Hungarian authorities re-sorted all the confiscated valuables into content categories. By that time it was all but impossible to identify proper ownership of any of the valuables.
The "Gold Train"
In late 1944, the Soviet Army was advancing on the Hungarian capital of Budapest. A government official appointed by the Schutzstaffel (SS) named Árpád Toldi concocted a plan to evacuate much of the Jewish loot out of Hungary. Toldi ordered large amounts of the loot onto a 42-car freight train that was to head for Germany.
According to various reports about the train, the contents included gold, gold jewelry, gems, diamonds, pearls, watches, about 200 paintings, Persian and Oriental rugs, silverware, chinaware, furniture, fine clothing, linens, porcelains, cameras, stamp-collections and currency (mostly US dollars and Swiss francs). Jewish organizations and the Hungarian government estimated the total value of the train's contents at $350 million in 1945 or almost $4 billion in 2007 adjusted for inflation. Other estimates of the contents' 1945 worth are from $50 million to $120 million  or $570 million to $1.7 billion in 2007 adjusted for inflation.
As the train meandered throughout Hungary and Austria, it stopped occasionally to transfer a great amount of the gold to trucks. The fate of the gold on those trucks remains unknown.
Fate of valuables from the "Gold Train"
The official United States asset restitution policy agreed upon at the 1946 Final Act of Paris Reparation Conference and by the Five-Power Agreement for Non-Repatriable Victims of Germany was to sell ownerless property for the benefit of non-repatriable refugees. These agreements were the basis for the creation of the Preparatory Committee for the International Refugee Organization (IRO).
The US had a different policy towards works of art. In accordance with long-standing international agreements, the US has a policy of restitution that "looted works of art and cultural material will be restituted to the governments of the countries from which they were taken."
Shortly after the US army seizure of the train, the majority of the assets were transferred to a Military Government Warehouse in Salzburg. The paintings, however, were stored in a Salzburg Residenz. As ownership of the valuables was impossible to ascertain, the official US position, as stipulated by United States Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, was that the belongings were to be given to refugee aid organizations in accordance with international restitution agreements.
However, the Central Board of Jews in Hungary, an organization representing Jewish interests in Hungary, and the new government of Hungary, were aware of the American seizure of the train and lobbied extensively, and sometimes passionately, for the return of all the contents of the train to Hungary where they could be sorted in an effort to return them to their rightful owners or their family members. The US Government continually ignored the Hungarian pleas.
The majority of the remaining assets from the train were either sold through Army exchange stores in Europe in 1946 or auctioned off in New York City in 1948 with the proceeds going to the IRO. According to The New York Times the auction receipts totaled $152,850.61, or approximately $1.3 million in 2007 adjusted for inflation. Items of clothing allocated for Army exchange store sales that were considered of lesser value were turned over to a Division chaplain for distribution "to needy DPs" (displaced persons).
Some of the property from the train ended up in the possession of high-ranking US Army officers who were stationed in Central Europe to oversee post-war and Marshall Plan reconstruction efforts. By requisition order of Major General Harry J. Collins, Commander of the 42nd Infantry Division (the famed "Rainbow" Division), many of the items were used to furnish his home. Other items furnished the homes and offices of other US military officers including Brigadier General Henning Linden and General Edgar E. Hume. The property included chinaware, silverware, glassware, rugs and table and bed linen.
The ultimate fate of approximately 200 paintings seized from the train is unknown. As they were deemed "cultural assets" under official US restitution policy, they should have been returned to their country of origin. That country should have been Hungary but the paintings somehow came into the possession of the Austrian government and their current whereabouts is unknown.
Developments since 1998
Most of the details of the Hungarian Gold Train were kept secret from the public by the United States government until 1998. In that year, United States President Bill Clinton created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States. In a report prepared by the committee that was published in October 1999 which detailed the handling of the train's assets by the United States, the committee cited a multitude of "shortcomings" of the US restitution efforts in Austria that eventually led to the property from the Hungarian Gold Train being so readily dispersed by United States officials. It concluded that the application of several policies regarding many assets on the train ensured they were never returned to their rightful owners.
In 2001 a lawsuit against the United States government was filed by Hungarian Holocaust survivors in a Florida district Federal Court for the government's mishandling of the assets on the Hungarian Gold Train. David Mermelstein, a survivor, was the only survivor present at the mediation. In 2005, the government reached a settlement worth $25.5 million. The money was allocated for distribution to various Jewish social service agencies for the benefit of Holocaust survivors.
- Art Research Staff (October 14, 1999). "The Mystery of the Hungarian “Gold Train”". Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States.
- Dunn, Adam (October 30, 2002). "Nazis and the mysterious 'Gold Train". CNN.
- "Bureau of Labor Statistics". United States Department of Labor.
- Kaplan, Jonathan E. (November 12, 2003). "Lawmakers Angry Over Slow Track of ‘Gold Train’ Case". The Hill.
- "U.S. settles 'Gold Train' Holocaust claims". Associated Press / USA Today. December 20, 2004.
- "Settlement in WWII 'Gold Train' Theft". Associated Press / The Washington Post. March 12, 2005.
- "U.S. settles 'Gold Train' Holocaust claims". Associated Press / Jewish Virtual Library. December 20, 2004 / September 26, 2005. Check date values in:
- Zweig, Ronald W. (2002). The Gold Train: The Destruction of the Jews and the Looting of Hungary. William Morrow. ISBN 978-0-06-620956-2.
- Gabor Kadar; Zoltan Vagi (2004). Self-Financing Genocide: The Gold Train, The Becher Case, The Wealth of Jews - Hungary. ISBN 9639241539.
- The Hungarian Gold Train Settlement
- Push continues to rectify Nazi-era looting of a 'Gold Train'. Jeff Shields, Dec. 12, 2003. Jewish World Review.