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Hungarian seeks Jewish father’s money confiscated by U.S. government

October 31, 1997

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) _ Klara Hamburger hasn’t bothered to check for her relatives’ names on the lists of dormant account holders that Swiss banks published in newspapers around the world. She knows her father’s account disappeared elsewhere: in the United States.

For decades following her father’s death in 1952, Hamburger battled to recover more than $8,000 in savings deposited in Account No. 24872 in the Hungarian Commercial Bank of Pest before 1931 and transferred by the bank to the United States for safekeeping during World War II.

She hired lawyers and wrote beseeching letters, but the answer was always the same: The account was confiscated because its owner was a citizen of a hostile country.

It is unclear how many others lost their money in the United States in this way. Marc Jean Mazurovsky, an American expert on Holocaust assets, estimated there could be about 5,000 similar accounts, but says it is impossible to know how much money they may contain.

The New York State Commission on Recovery of Holocaust Victims’ Assets, which is helping people from 19 countries trace their relatives’ World-War II-era Swiss accounts, has not received any claims about money seized outright by the U.S. government, said commission counsel Irwin Nack.

But it has gotten inquiries from people who believe their family’s U.S. accounts, usually registered in New York, went unclaimed and reverted to the state treasury.

Like many citizens of Eastern Europe, middle-class Jewish surgeon Istvan Hamburger suffered doubly: first as a victim of the fascists, then of the Hungarian communists who swept into power after the war. Hungary joined the Germany-led Axis powers during the war, and had laws restricting the number of Jews allowed in certain professions as early as 1921.

Hamburger, his wife and 10-year-old daughter were among tens of thousands of Jews forced to wear the yellow star and squeezed into Budapest’s Jewish ghetto in the spring of 1944; hundreds of thousands of others were deported to death camps, and most perished there.

Meanwhile, their country was at war with the United States. All U.S. assets belonging to individuals and companies in continental Europe had been frozen in June 1941 to protect them from seizure by the Nazis. The following year, the U.S. government began seizing the assets of citizens of Germany and its allies.

Adolf Hitler’s copyright royalties were seized, as were those for Walter Schellenberg, a high-ranking Nazi intelligence officer, Nack said. So was Hamburger’s account.

Hamburger’s claim to the funds was rebuffed in 1946 by the Office of Alien Property in Washington. It said the account had been seized since Hungary had been at war with the United States.

Even if he had been able to recover the money, Hamburger would have faced problems. As the communists consolidated their grip across Eastern Europe, private property became a liability.

Nack recalls seeing notations on some Swiss accounts belonging to citizens in communist Eastern Europe that they should not be contacted, since owning a foreign account was a criminal offense in their country.

In Budapest, the Hamburgers lost what property they had owned: the doctor’s clinic and an apartment building. Their prewar wealth was gone.

``It became very hard for my father to get a new job. After his grave heart illness, he absolutely could not endure the afflictions of the communists, either,″ Klara Hamburger said.

In 1952, the doctor died. He was 59, and his daughter was 18. The account was on the other side of the Iron Curtain, out of reach.

``Everyone took something from me: the Hungarians, the Germans, the Russians, and the Americans,″ said Hamburger, a musicologist, as she sat with her husband in their apartment and pored through a file of correspondence about her father’s account.

Many of the letters were lost when her Budapest lawyer died about 25 years ago, around the same time Hungary and the United States concluded a 1972 bilateral agreement settling World War II-era claims.

After communism collapsed in Hungary in 1989, Hamburger wrote the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. It referred her to a Hungarian government compensation office, which turned down her claim.

``I had stopped hoping I would get anything back. But nowadays people are getting things, things whose owners are dead,″ she said. ``If Italy, France and Switzerland are paying compensation, why can’t the United States?″

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