A local law firm leads the way in seeking Holocaust reparations from the Hungarian government.
Winston Churchill once called Hungary’s complicity in the Holocaust “probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the history of the world.”
After Nazi tanks rolled into Budapest in March of 1944, the Hungarian police started rounding up and deporting Jews on national railway trains. While thousands were murdered on the banks of the Danube, hundreds of thousands were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Around 565,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum and memorial.
“Hungary has never acknowledged culpability nor accepted responsibility for its participation in the Holocaust,” says attorney Charles S. “Chuck” Fax of the law firm Rifkin Weiner Livingston LLC.
Fax is co-lead counsel among a team of lawyers bringing a class action suit in federal court seeking reparations from the Hungarian government. Other lead counsel for the plaintiffs include attorneys L. Marc Zell, Paul G. Gaston and David H. Weinstein, as well as Liesel J. Schopler, who is also with Rifkin Weiner Livingston.
After eight years of litigation, the legal team is preparing to move forward with financial assistance from ongoing and new sources of support regarding the case of Simon, et al., Appellants v. Republic of Hungary.
Jmore recently spoke about the case with Fax, who lives in North Bethesda with his wife, Michele Weil, and belongs to Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase.
What is the focus of this lawsuit?
Our primary focus is on a few thousand survivors in Israel, Canada, Australia, the U.S. and elsewhere, and on behalf of their estates. There is one elderly survivor in Baltimore and one in New Jersey. We are asking for restitution of property stolen from them and their families. We cannot sue for pain, suffering and mental anguish because under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, we can only sue for stolen property.
We seek several billion dollars in restitution for all property taken from Hungarian Jews, plus interest, well beyond Hungary’s negligible payments so far. But this case is not solely about the money for plaintiffs who are in their 80s and 90s. We also want the world to understand what Hungary did, and we want Hungary to acknowledge its role in the Holocaust, accepting responsibility for its actions.
How are you and your colleagues compensated?
If we win the case, the court could order Hungary to compensate us. We’ve been at it for eight years, and the case could go on for many more years. We the lawyers have been paying all the costs, including for example my trips to Hungary, which my law firm paid for.
How would you describe contemporary Hungary?
It is one of the most anti-Semitic, right-wing cultures in Europe. In its capital, Budapest, there is increasing anti-Semitism, manifested mainly by anti-Semitic acts committed against Jewish property and escalating anti-Semitic rhetoric in public. Between 75,000-100,000 Jews live in and around Budapest, which is a beautiful city. Budapest has the largest Jewish population in Central Europe, with some 20 synagogues. But their situation is precarious because of the increased atmosphere of insecurity.
Regarding fulfillment of reparations, how would you compare Hungary to Germany?
There is no comparison. Germany has acknowledged its role in the Holocaust. Germany has gone to great lengths to address the issue of reparations and, from a historical standpoint, established monuments memorializing the Holocaust. They deserve credit for that. Germany sets an example for all of post-World War II Europe.
Hungary has only made payments to Holocaust survivors that are trivial in the extreme, and Hungary continues to frustrate attempts to get real reparations. Hungary has failed to come to grips with its culpability during the Holocaust.
What are the next steps in this case?
We have set up the Holocaust Victims Action Fund. As a 501(c) (3) organization, tax-deductible contributions to support the litigation can be made to: Holocaust Victims Action Fund, c/o Director Gary Simms, 9010 Levelle Dr., Chevy Chase, Md. 20815-5608. As we begin the next phase of this litigation, we seek to raise $1 million to involve additional experts, the necessary translation of more papers in Hungarian and German and to present new legal strategies which will help us to achieve our reparations goals.
What are the prospects for winning the lawsuit?
That’s hard to say, but we’ve been engaged for eight years and we are confident we will continue to be engaged. On the second appeal of the dismissal of the complaint, for example, counsel for Hungary argued that the suit belonged in that country. Appellate Judge Patricia Millett [of the U.S. Court of Appeals] responded, in part, “I don’t get why you [the Hungarian government] cry about your rights when what you did was in violation of international law, basic laws of humanity. … [You represent] a government that committed amongst the worst atrocities in the history of mankind.”
We have high confidence that we will prevail.
Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.