President Joe Biden has declared April 24 through May 1, 2022 a week of Holocaust observance. He calls upon “the people of the United States to observe this week and pause to remember victims and survivors of the Holocaust.”
But pausing to remember victims during Holocaust Remembrance Week and taking action to help survivors are two different things.
I have a proposal for readers of The Times of Israel to take action.
But, first, before I share my proposal, let me explain why I have a direct stake in this matter.
In 1944, my maternal grandfather, Mihaly Spitzer, was leader of the Jewish community of about 1000 in Hajudunanas, Hungary. (Over 900 eventually died in Auschwitz.)
On May 14, 1944, under gun point, Hungarian police ordered all of them to leave their houses and factories and move to a ghetto near the synagogue. The Hajdunanas Town Hall city council forced the Jews to pay for the construction of the ghetto. Food and water were rationed. The Hungarian police shot anyone if they attempted to leave the ghetto. German soldiers looked on with delight as the Hungarians went beyond the call of duty to terrorize the Jews.
The entire town of 13,000 knew that the Jews were going to be exterminated in Auschwitz. No one lifted a finger to prevent it from happening.
On June 21, the Hungarian police relocated the Jews to the Serly Brickyards in Debrecen. Three days later, the police sent a group to Strasshof, Austria to work as slave laborers in a German factory.
As the rabbi and leader of the community, my grandfather and his family (including my future mother) were supposed to go to Strasshof, but he decided to stay on the Auschwitz train to comfort one of the members of his synagogue.
On June 25, 26, 27 and 28, Hungarian police sent my Grandfather and his family, and the other 990 Jews of Hajdunanas, to Auschwitz on five MÁV (Hungarian state) trains organized by Hungarian officials in the government of Admiral Miklos Horthy, the Regent of Hungary. At no time before or since, has Hungarian public administration, not usually known for its excellent management, worked so efficiently and effectively.
My Grandfather, my Grandmother (Ilona Hillmann) and the following Spitzer children were deported to Auschwitz: Abraham, Bela, Farkas, Ibolya, Jakab, Laci, Margit (my future mother).
Not only was my Grandfather the community leader of Hajdunanas, he owned a world-famous Panama Hat manufacturing company that took up a whole block in the center of town, a few meters away from the Town Hall city council. He exported straw hats to America, South America and all of Europe. Fred Astaire was a regular customer.
When the Hungarian police ordered the Jews to leave their homes and factories, local Hungarians, many of them formerly friends of the Jews, went into their abandoned homes and stole all their furniture and valuables. Then the Hajdunanas Town Hall city council officially confiscated my Grandfather’s thriving Panama Hat Factory, and made it their own business. The factory was worth, in today’s dollars, about 1 million dollars. The city council continued to manufacture and export Panama Hats, at a handsome profit, during the rest of the war.
Arriving at Auschwitz, after a grueling five-day journey packed with others in cattle cars with one bucket to defecate in, my Grandfather looked through the cattle car slits and said to my future mother, in a quiet voice, “They’re going to kill us.”
Dogs barking. Mengele selects. Left line: Grandfather and Grandmother go immediately to the gas chamber. My future mother, age 26, is in the right line. She tightly holds her little brother’s hand (Laci, age 15), and is told by a fellow prisoner to let go or she will be sent to the left line. She lets go. He dies. She lives and works in munitions production at the camp until September.
Eventually Mother was sent by the Germans to Bergen Belsen and then to Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia. Liberation came when the Russians arrived. She waited for a train to take her back to Hajdunanas, where she was stunned to find only surly Hungarians, who were not pleased that Jews had returned from Auschwitz. They had been enjoying their stolen goods too much to want to return them.
There have been many Holocaust-era cases brought against the Government of Hungary for collaborating with the Nazis, most recently before the US Supreme Court. In February 2021, SCOTUS ruled that, due to “sovereign immunity” (a legal fiction that protects one country from suing another), Hungarian survivors cannot sue the Hungarian government in US courts for restitution:
On April 15, 2022, Lawrence Tribe, a Harvard Law School professor, and Jeremy Lewin, published an article in The New York Times. They wrote: “’sovereign immunity’ … protects foreign assets only from judicial process — not from liquidation by the combined action of Congress and the executive branch. And as a mere creation of Congress, as the Supreme Court emphasized as recently as 2016, such immunity cannot survive a congressional enactment …”
But, surprisingly, there has never been a congressional enactment dealing with Holocaust restitution. The government of Hungary, the only EU state on the side of Russia in the Ukraine war, has tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars stashed in US banks to pay its debts, as well as considerable property in America. If Congress can pass a law to freeze Russian assets in the US, they can pass a law to freeze Hungarian assets.
When I contacted Professor Tribe about the article he co-authored with Jeremy Lewin, he responded most graciously: “If there is to be reconsideration of the pervasive problem of holding human rights abusers legally accountable to survivors following the unfortunate result of the unanimous SCOTUS decisions in Germany v. Philipp and Hungary v. Simon (2021),” he wrote me in an email, “then the geopolitical and humanitarian crisis triggered by Russia’s genocidal war against the nation of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people may well create just the right political and cultural chemistry for the chain reactions required.”
Now for my proposal.
During Holocaust Remembrance Week, please call President Joe Biden, Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Demand that they pass a Holocaust Restitution Act that would create a US Holocaust Claims Tribunal, the only constitutional way to circumvent the effect of what SCOTUS did in February 2021.
The phone number for President Joe Biden is +1-202-456-1111.
The phone number for Speaker Nancy Pelosi is +1-202-225-4965.
The phone number for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is +1-202-224-6542.
I also implore Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the Jewish son of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, to call his counterpart Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, the Jewish son of a former Ambassador to Hungary, and ask Mr. Blinken to personally bring the need for a Holocaust Restitution Act to President Biden’s attention.
The phone number for Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is +1-202-647-6575
Actions during Holocaust Remembrance Week speak louder than words.