In 1944-1945 the Hungarian government deported most Hungarian Jews to German concentration camps where hundreds of thousands were murdered. The victims were completely plundered before deportation – the state confiscated everything from factories to their last tablespoons. As the Soviet army was moving into Hungary in the last months of the war, the Hungarian and German Nazis spirited some of the blood-soaked loot out of the country. An entire train was loaded up with the robbed goods, including gold and silver objects, precious gems, carpets, furs, paintings, hundreds of Torah shields and Chanukiahs. The train ended up in Austria where its freight was scattered and impounded by the French and the US military authorities. Most of the French portion was returned to Hungary in 1948 where the communist government simply embezzled the goods, plundering the Hungarian Jewish community once more. The fate of the portion of the cargo in US custody took a different direction. Some items were appropriated by US troops, but the bulk of the assets were auctioned off in New York in 1948 and the income was transferred to international Jewish aid organisations.
The story of the “Hungarian Jewish Gold Train” was more or less dormant for decades. Independently from each other, Hungarian, Israeli and American scholars launched research projects in the 1990s to reveal the details of the infamous cargo’s fate. The records of the multifaceted story were hidden in dozens of collections in several archives in five countries. Finding and processing the relevant bodies of documents took years. With the Yerusha portal in place, the location of relevant collections would have been much easier.
The intercontinental paper trail
The documents regarding the assembly of the train’s cargo were found mainly in Hungarian archives. Statements by banks handing over deposited and confiscated Jewish assets to the government, post-war investigative materials, trial documents and reports were explored in the Hungarian National Archives, the Budapest Municipal Archives and the Historical Archives of State Security Services. The Hungarian Jewish Archives hold documents recording the efforts of the Jewish community’s leadership to hide the most precious liturgical objects in various safe places.
A German-Hungarian agreement pertaining to the evacuation of the plundered Jewish assets was recovered in the Yad Vashem Archive, Jerusalem. A document collection recording the events of the “evacuation” was found in the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, Germany.
Various copies of documents recording the train’s journey between March and May 1945, such as protocols, reports, inventories, and orders, also found their way from Austria to the collections of the Hungarian National Archives, the Hungarian Jewish Archives and the Yad Vashem Archives.
A plethora of papers indicating the decision-making process of the US military authorities regarding the captured Hungarian Jewish assets can be found in the collections held by the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington DC. Documents revealing the French government’s position on the items under French custody are held by the Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris and Colmar, France.
Records shedding light on the post-war efforts of the Hungarian Jewish community to reclaim the cargo have been discovered in the repositories of the Hungarian Jewish Archives. Documents attesting to international and Israeli Jewish organisations’ attempts to get a hold of the assets have been revealed in the JDC Archives in New York and the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. Images of the looted Jewish property are held by the NARA, the USHMM and the Central Zionist Archives.
While most of the details of the Gold Train story are clarified, it is certain that unexplored collections hold further relevant documentation.
In 2001, Hungarian Holocaust survivors filed a lawsuit in Florida against the US government claiming that US authorities mishandled their assets. The case ended in a settlement in 2005 leading to the allocation of approximately 21 million dollars towards aid and relief for Holocaust survivors around the world. The Gold Train story became one of the emblematic compensation issues of the 2000s.
- Kádár, Gábor and Zoltán Vági. Aranyvonat. Fejezetek a zsidó vagyon történetéből. [Gold Train. Chapters from the History of the Jewish Wealth] Budapest: Osiris, 2001.
- Kádár, Gábor and Zoltán Vági. Self-financing Genocide: the Gold Train, the Becher Case and the Wealth of Hungarian Jews. Budapest-New York: Central University Press, 2004.
- Zweig, Ronald. The Gold Train. The Destruction of the Jews and the Second World War’s Most Terrible Robbery. London: Allen Lane, 2002.
- The Hungarian Gold Train Settlement – http://www.hungariangoldtrain.org/index_en.php