A group of 14 Holocaust survivors from Hungary have filed a class action lawsuit in the US against the Hungarian government and its national train company for their cooperation with the Nazis, their complicity in deporting over half a million Jews in the Holocaust and the massive confiscation of their property.
Hungary is the only state that has not yet reached a compensation settlement with Holocaust survivors or their heirs. The Hungarian government also has never been prosecuted for collaboration with the Nazis.
The lawsuit has been filed in a federal court in Washington DC by the Holocaust survivors, six of them from Israel, the others living in the US, Canada and Australia.
At first the court rejected the lawsuit on the grounds that the 1947 peace treaty between the Allies and Hungary gives it immunity from these lawsuits. However the plaintiffs did not give up and filed an appeal to a federal court of appeals, and in the previous week it completely overturned the previous interpretation given in the lower court, and sent the lawsuit back to the federal courts.
Concurrently, another group of Holocaust survivors from Hungary filed a lawsuit against the national train company and the banks of Hungary in a federal court in Chicago, but it was rejected. After two appeals, they were told to file the appeal in Hungary.
The lawsuit in Washington was filed by the Israeli-American lawyer Marc Zell. "We did not establish a sum, but in actuality it will amount to billons of dollars. This is basically a class action lawsuit. If we win, a fund under the court's supervision with a mechanism that will inform every Holocaust survivor and their families will be established, and then the court will make sure the money is distributed according to a formula that it will determine," he said.
"This is a large and important lawsuit that arrives 71 years after the war. A relatively large amount of Hungarian Holocaust survivors and their descendents live in Israel," Zell said, who himself is a distant relative of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor.
"There were attempts in the past to get reparations from Nazi criminals in Hungary, but this case is unique because this is the first time the Hungarian government is being sued. Usually the Nazi crimes occurred in areas where there was no independent regime, such as Poland. There, the Nazis established their own regime and they are the ones who committed the crimes, as well as Poles who cooperated with them," he added.
"Hungary had an independent government. They were anti-Semitic from the start," Zell continued. "In our lawsuit we also mentioned the Hungarians' activities in 1941 - before the big deportation. They expelled 20,000 Jews from Hungary proper into the hands of the Nazis, and all of them were shot to death in Ukraine. They initiated this, without the Germans asking them to do it. The Hungarians wanted to get rid of the Jews. In 1944, the remaining Jews were deported by the Hungarians to Auschwitz and Mauthausen in trains, and basically they were sent to their deaths. "
He argues that the Hungarian national railway company maintains all records of all the Jews deported to Auschwitz. "They even sent every Jew a bill for the train, the transport expenses of himself, his belongings and his family to Auschwitz or Mauthausen. We are suing the train which sent more than six million Jews to their death," he said.
'Whomever is to blame has to pay the price'
The US has a law that gives foreign states sovereign immunity from claims. "Usually it is impossible to sue a government. But the US in some cases it is possible to sue a foreign government or governmental company, but only if the government expropriated property against international law," said Zell.
"So we can sue for the confiscation of personal property of the victims, but ironically we cannot sue for the death and physical and psychological suffering that they went through. Our chances are now better because the claim was confirmed by the Federal Court of Appeals, but now we go back to the District Court to continue the trial."
When asked why the lawsuit was filed in the US specifically, Zell replied: "Because the US has a law that gives the option for individuals to file a claim for damage caused to them by a foreign government or a foreign government's company. We took advantage of the law for the benefit of Holocaust survivors. About 15 years ago there were two survivors who were trying to get compensation in Hungary, but one received the ridiculous sum of $500 and other was completely rejected because he used his Hebrew name instead of his Hungarian name - and because of this the courts claimed that the person was not the same man."
One of the plaintiffs is Ze'ev (Tibi) Ram, 85, from Kibbutz Afikim. Ze'ev is a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who grew up during the war and worked at Auschwitz and in the labor camp in Silesia, he took part in the death march and survived Bergen-Belsen as well. He lost his family in the Holocaust, and after he came to Israel he participated in most of Israel's wars.
"I grew up in a nationalist-Hungarian, a secular Jew. I saw Hungary as the homeland and what happened was disappointing," he said, and explained that "justice should be done. Whomever is to blame has to pay the price."