Lawsuit Pressures U.S. to Return Seized Nazi Loot

Bipartisan political pressure is building for the Bush administration to settle a lawsuit by Hungarian Jews who claim the United States plundered family riches that had been seized by the Nazis during World War II (search).

Washington lawyer and Republican insider Fred Fielding (search) is mediating the dispute as a federal judge in Miami considers a renewed Justice Department attempt to scuttle the class-action lawsuit.

"We're still talking," Fielding said last week. "As long as the parties are talking, there's a chance of a solution everybody can live with."

The train and cargo worth an estimated $50 million to $120 million were shrouded in official secrecy until the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets (search) detailed it in a 1999 draft report.

In the waning days of the war, the Nazis sent 24 boxcars toward Germany, filled with gold, silver, paintings, Oriental rugs, furs and other treasures seized from Hungarian Holocaust (search) victims.

Nazis, Hungarians and Austrians stole from the train along the way. The U.S. Army eventually seized control of the riches, but American officers helped themselves to china, silverware and artwork for their homes and offices, according to the commission.

The lawsuit seeks up to $10,000 each for as many as 30,000 Hungarian Jews and their survivors.

A hearing is set Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz in Miami on legal issues that need to be decided to determine whether the lawsuit goes to trial. She ruled against the Justice Department once before and last year accused higher-ups in the government of "dragging their feet."

John Kerry borrowed that line earlier this month in a statement calling for a quick and fair settlement.

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (search), a Miami Republican, wrote White House strategist Karl Rove on Sept. 30, urging that the Holocaust survivors receive restitution.

Three survivors wrote President Bush on Sunday, begging him to "step in and ensure that there is justice for the victims in the Hungarian gold train case."

White House spokesman Taylor Gross said the government is participating in mediation "to see if the matter can be resolved amicably. We want to be sure that the U.S. government acted properly in its handling of this property at the end of World War II."

The United States pressured European governments and businesses in the 1990s to pay Holocaust reparations, and critics say the U.S. government should hold itself to the same standard.

Sam Dubbin, attorney for the families suing the government, said: "This administration had the ability to settle this case and hasn't."

The Justice Department said last summer that the United States "bears neither the legal nor the moral responsibility" for the losses. In court papers, Justice attorneys said that Hungarian Holocaust victims, many of whom lost relatives to the Nazis and survived the war penniless, "lived generally prosperous lives" in North America.