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Briefing by Art Research Staff to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States on the "Hungarian Gold Train" -- October 14, 1999

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On May 16, 1945, infantry forces of the U.S. army seized a train in Werfen, Austria, sixty miles south of Salzburg. This train was laden with paintings and other valuables, mostly taken from Hungarian Jews by Adolf Eichmann’s Nazi forces and Hungarian collaborators.

International law and U.S. restitution policy created obligations to return works of art to the nation from which they were looted because art was considered part of the country’s patrimony. More specifically, U.S. policy stated, "identifiable looted works of art and cultural material will be restituted to the governments of the countries from which they were taken." This policy applied to all combatant nations—even Axis countries like Hungary. To the extent that the paintings on the Gold Train were not returned to Hungary, the U.S. failed to adhere to this policy.

The first problem relating to the disposition of the Gold Train assets was the United States’ determination that these assets were not identifiable as to ownership or national origin. Once this decision was affirmed by General Mark Clark, the restitution of Gold Train assets to Hungary or to the Hungarian Jewish community was no longer an option. This decision was backed up over time in Washington, by Secretary of State George Marshall, among others.

Representatives of the Hungarian Jewish community vigorously protested the U.S. decision that restitution of Gold Train assets was not feasible but were unsuccessful in making their case to various American officials (including the State Department in Washington and the U.S. Legation in Budapest). The Hungarian Jewish community insisted that many of the objects were, in fact, identifiable and that, with access to the contents of the Gold Train, they could identify their property. For example, on July 28, 1947, the Central Board of Jews in Hungary wrote to the State Department, "we ask you respectfully—to give a chance to the Chairman of this Committee, and possibly to its other appointed members by way of the competent organs—to gain information on the spot of the present place of storage, the substance value and estimates of the valuables in question and of the necessary measures to be taken, and that the most far reaching right should be granted to them, as the representatives of the legitimate owners of these valuable to make investigations, inventories, to safeguard and to take over the valuables."

The U.S. government was not responsive to the Hungarian Jewish representatives. The U.S. apparently decided, fairly early on, that notwithstanding the assertions of the Hungarian Jewish community, ownership of the victims’ assets found on the Gold Train could not be determined. The pleas to halt the New York auction of the Gold Train assets, property other than the paintings, were not heeded.

A second problem relating to the disposition of Gold Train property was the degree to which American forces in Austria appropriated certain assets. This took place at the highest level: Generals Collins, Laude, Hume, Howard, and Linden, all took valuables from the Gold Train to furnish their residences and offices. The subsequent disposition of this property is not known.

Less valuable objects from the Gold Train, such as watches, cameras, and modest jewelry, were sold through the Army Exchange stores. Property in the Military Government warehouse was also subject to theft. A notable example was the disappearance of a suitcase filled with gold dust.

It is important to stress that the U.S. forces in Europe generally behaved in a commendable way. Nevertheless, as a generalization, there appear to have been more difficulties with U.S. forces in Austria than in Germany. This is due to a number of complicated factors, including ambiguities in the law and procedures to be applied to the military occupation of Austria; the vast array of treasures stored in its castles and mines; and the proximity of Soviet forces. It will be important to look more closely at the conduct of American forces in Austria.

A third problem with the disposition of Gold Train assets--in addition to whether the objects on the Gold Train were identifiable, and the extent to which they were misappropriated by U.S. forces—was the decision to transfer to the Austrian government more than 1100 paintings taken out of Hungary.

While it cannot be stated too often that the U.S. forces generally did an outstanding and scrupulous job carrying out the restitution policy of returning artworks to the country of origin, the U.S. did not follow that policy in this case. Although we can find no single explanation for the transfer of the Gold Train paintings to Austria and not to Hungary, this deviation from policy was clearly caught up in the post war politics of Central Europe.

The current disposition of the 1,100-plus paintings is not known at this time. We have written to both the Hungarian and Austrian governments and informed them of our findings. The initial response from Hungarian contacts in relevant government agencies indicates that they had never before received either these paintings or inventories listing them. The Austrian authorities, and more specifically, Dr. Ernst Bacher in the Federal Monuments Office, reported to us that their initial research indicated that "a portion of this property had been restituted." Dr. Bacher did not say to whom these works were restituted or when. We have asked him for more specific information.

There are several areas where concerted efforts will be made to deepen our understanding of the U.S. handling of the Gold Train. First, we will try to gain a clearer picture of the role played by the monuments and fine arts officers is formulating policy concerning the objects on the train. Second, we will conduct oral histories with surviving members of the U.S. forces in Austria. Third, we will search for individual claims made by Hungarian victims and try to determine if survivors or their heirs have also made efforts to regain their property. There are many questions still to be answered, but we believe that we have identified a topic with important implications for the Commission.

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