In the dying days of World War II, as the Red Army swept into Hungary from the east, the country's Fascist leaders escaped to the West with a trainload of loot, headed toward neutral Switzerland. They got as far as the Austrian village of Werfen, where they were forced to surrender their booty to the U.S. Fifth Army.
The Americans who captured the train on May 16, 1945--eight days after V-E day--discovered wagon after wagon crammed with the property of the Hungarian Jewish bourgeoisie, from furs and stamp collections to artwork and oriental rugs to at least one crate of wedding rings confiscated from Holocaust victims.
Over the past half-century, the fate of the Hungarian "Gold Train" has become the stuff of legend, books, moral hand-wringing and a protracted legal dispute between the United States and Hungary.
Yesterday, a U.S. presidential commission on Holocaust-era assets attempted to write the end of the story. It said that part of the loot seized from the Hungarian Gold Train was auctioned off by Jewish charitable organizations, part was requisitioned by senior U.S. officers in Austria for their personal use and part was frittered away through neglect and petty theft.
In addition, the U.S. government transferred 1,181 paintings to Austria in 1949 in violation of international treaties stipulating that "cultural property" looted during World War II should be returned to "the country of origin," in this case Hungary.
Among the documents cited by the commission is a requisition order from the commander of U.S. troops in western Austria, Maj. Gen. Harry J. Collins, for large amounts of Gold Train property, including a complete dinner service for 45 people, 30 sets of table linens, 12 silver candlesticks, 60 bath towels and 13 rugs, for both his villa and personal railroad car. Despite repeated pleas from the Hungarian Jewish community, the commission added, very few of the valuables were returned to their original owners.
Publication of the presidential commission's report marks a new twist in the long-running saga of Nazi gold. Until now, the United States has largely escaped the spate of finger-pointing against countries such as Switzerland, Austria and France for failing to make proper retribution to Holocaust victims and their heirs.
In what was billed as a "progress report" on the Gold Train's fate, the presidential commission on Holocaust-era assets described the U.S. handling of the matter as a "mysterious" and "egregious" exception to a generally creditable record on restituting looted Jewish property. Congress established the commission last year to track the assets of World War II victims that may have passed through the hands of U.S. government institutions.
Commission chairman Edgar M. Bronfman said the report was part of an effort by the United States to admit to past "mistakes" rather than simply harangue the rest of the world. "The important thing is that we as Americans are looking at our own past, saying what we did right, what we did wrong," he said.
The commission's findings could reopen a long-standing dispute with Hungary over the disposition of the Gold Train assets. According to declassified U.S. government documents in the National Archives, successive U.S. administrations rejected claims by Hungary's Communist government to the treasure trove on the grounds that the original owners could not be identified. In 1966, the State Department argued that part of the property could be considered American "war booty" and that Hungarian government claims that the property was worth $206 million at the war's end--or around $2 billion today--were "grossly exaggerated."
But the commission's conclusions are controversial, and have already come under attack by a leading Holocaust researcher. Ron Zweig, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University who is writing his own book about the fate of the Gold Train, said the report showed "a very basic misunderstanding of the immediate post-war period." He said the U.S. authorities had reason to mistrust Communist promises to return valuable items to a much-diminished Hungarian Jewish community after World War II.
"Individual restitution was impossible for the vast bulk of the looted goods," said Zweig, who accused the presidential commission of "rushing to print" in an attempt to "grab headlines" and justify its $6 million budget. The author of the Gold Train report, Jonathan Petropoulos, rejected the charge. He said the commission intended to conduct further research, by interviewing retired U.S. officials and searching for claims by Hungarian Jews.
Documents cited by the presidential commission show that the loot was transferred to a U.S. military warehouse in Salzburg, 60 miles north of Werfen, where it soon attracted the attention of senior U.S. officers, who needed to furnish the empty castles and villas they had confiscated from Austrian aristocrats. In his requisition request, Collins demanded items "of the very best quality and workmanship." Other generals followed his lead.
Officers in charge of the warehouse had some misgivings about fulfilling these orders, but complied nonetheless, according to research by Kenneth D. Alford, who wrote about the Gold Train in a 1994 book, "The Spoils of World War II." One former property officer, Capt. Howard A. MacKenzie, told Alford that "the only difference between the Germans and the Americans in looting was [that] the Germans keep very accurate records, and with the Americans it was free enterprise unchecked."
A much larger portion of the Gold Train loot was given to Jewish organizations for public auction to raise funds for the hundreds of thousands of penniless Jewish refugees freed from Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. According to the presidential commission, U.S. officials ignored calls by Hungarian Jewish organizations to be allowed to inspect the property before it was handed over.
Rather than return the looted artworks to Hungary, the U.S. government transferred them to Austria for safekeeping, a move that reflected the official perception then of Austria as a victim of Nazism rather than a willing accomplice of Adolf Hitler. Precisely what happened to the artwork after 1952 is still a mystery. Austrian officials told the commission that "a portion of the property" was "restituted," but have yet to provide details.
Just how much of the loot on the Gold Train could be traced to original owners is a matter of continuing debate. Shortly after the war, the Hungarian government backed up its demand for the property with a list of 900 individual claims totaling $47 million. In 1952, the State Department official in charge of restitution matters, Ardelia Hall, proposed that "the detailed list" of paintings "should be broadcast to Hungary with the statement that the property is held under trusteeship for eventual return to the owners," a recommendation that never was followed.
Alford, the author of the 1994 book, cites U.S. military documents reporting the discovery of "lists of names of people from whom some of the items on the train were taken."
Zweig, on the other hand, argues that the vast majority of the loot was untraceable by the time it fell into American hands. He notes that the train took 3 1/2 months to get out of Hungary, during which time the Fascist leaders opened up many of the original envelopes and boxes. "By the time they had finished, there were just crates of wedding rings, gold jewelry, and uncut diamonds. The records became meaningless," he said.
U.S. government records show that the Truman administration decided in 1948 to change its policy on returning looted artwork to the country of origin, in order to prevent such treasures from falling into the hands of Communist regimes in eastern Europe.