Holocaust Survivors Lose Suit Against Hungary
(CN) - Hungary and its two rail companies need not face claims that they collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust, a federal judge ruled.
In a 97-page decision Friday, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell said the claims must be dismissed because U.S. courts do not have jurisdiction over the defendants.
"The atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II will continue to reverberate through history for decades to come, as they should, so the world may learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past," Howell wrote. "There is no doubt that the plaintiffs were wronged, atrociously so, and that they believe defendant Hungary, assisted by its railway, has not atoned adequately for its genocidal actions. Nevertheless, there are limits to the reach of the United States courts to provide redress where the Constitution and relevant laws and treaties say otherwise."
Of the 14 plaintiff Holocaust survivors, four are U.S. nationals, while the other 10 live in Canada, Australia and Israel. They alleged that nowhere was the Holocaust "executed with such speed and ferocity as it was in Hungary, where in 1944, over a half a million souls were dispatched to their deaths within a period of less than three months."
Most "of the Hungarian atrocities occurred near the end of the war in 1944, when the Nazis and Hungary, knowing they had lost, raced to complete their eradication of the Jews before the Axis surrendered," according to the complaint.
The survivors claimed that the Hungarian government and rail companies were responsible for transporting hundreds of thousands of Jews to killing fields and concentration camps, where they were tortured and most died in a short period of time.
All but two of the named survivors were transported in the spring of 1944. These dozen survivors were allegedly sent to the Nazi's concentration camp at Auschwitz by Hungary's two rail companies, Magyar Allamvasutak Zrt (MAV) and Rail Cargo Hungaria's (RCH) predecessor.
The survivors also claim that the rail companies took their possessions from their bodies and homes, then sold or liquidated that property, generating cash for the government treasury that the Hungarian government commingled with other revenues.
Only one of the named plaintiffs received a payment, totaling $5,000, from the Hungarian company to compensate for losses.
The survivors sought to represent a class of Hungarian Holocaust survivors and immediate family members under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) and the Alien Tort Statute.
"The defendants recognize that 'the wrongs inflicted upon plaintiffs and millions of others were wrongful - they clearly were,' and note that '[n]othing said in the defense of this lawsuit can, or should, diminish the world's condemnation of Nazi wrongdoing during World War II,'" Howell wrote.
When the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom signed a peace treaty formally ending the war with Hungary in 1947, Hungary agreed to pay fair compensation to those whose property was confiscated during the war. Any unclaimed expropriated property would be transferred to refugee-aid organizations six months after the treaty went into force.
Howell found it immaterial to the application of the treaty exception to the FSIA that the efforts by Hungary and its railways to comply with the treaty were "paltry and wholly inadequate."
"Since the 1947 Treaty provides a right to be made whole for the victims of the Hungarian Holocaust, any dispute over the adequacy of those efforts is, by definition, a dispute over the interpretation or execution of the 1947 Treaty such that Article 40 applies," Howell wrote.
Article 40 provides for an exclusive executive branch mechanism to settle disputes arising from claims within the scope of the 1947 Treaty, and is a nonjudicial remedy for which Congress designed the treaty exception to the FSIA, the court found.
Therefore, the survivors' "requests for relief are properly directed to the Executive Branch, which may resolve such disputes diplomatically, rather than the Judicial Branch, which is constrained by the FSIA to recognize the Hungary defendants' sovereign immunity, consistent with the conditional waiver embodied in the 1947 Treaty," Howell wrote.
Howell also found that the court cannot exercise personal jurisdiction over RCH, which is incorporated and headquartered in Austria. The company's operation of a generally accessible website, by itself, does not provide sufficient contacts with the United States to subject it to U.S. jurisdiction, the court found.
"Even were this United States District Court an appropriate forum to adjudicate claims arising overseas decades ago from the Holocaust and, in that context, to assess the sufficiency of a foreign sovereign's efforts to redress these horrors, this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the Hungary defendants under the FSIA and personal jurisdiction over defendant RCH due to the lack of minimum contacts between that defendant and the United States," Howell wrote.
"Since the court finds that the Hungary defendants are immune from suit under the treaty exception to the FSIA and no personal jurisdiction may be exercised over defendant RCH, the defendants' other arguments need not be addressed to resolve the pending motions."