Nazis and the mysterious 'Gold Train'
New book tracks tale of lost treasure from the Holocaust
By Adam Dunn
NEW YORK (CNN) -- In a cramped, unventilated New York University office, an intense man tells a story about some looted Nazi gold.
The man is Ronald Zweig, and his scholarly visage and soft accent belie a tenacity for wading through the archives of the Holocaust. A senior scholar of modern Judaic studies and member of the National Archives' Historical Advisory Panel on Holocaust Era Records, he's also the author of a new book, "The Gold Train" (William Morrow), on the infamous Hungarian treasure haul.
The Gold Train included everything from silverware and watches to "wedding rings and gold teeth with human blood on them," Zweig writes. The material was from hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews rounded up by the SS and Hungarian fascists in the spring of 1944.
The contents of the train were never recovered in toto. Much of it was dispersed throughout Europe; some disappeared. Over the years, Holocaust survivors have sought to get back the belongings that were placed on the train, to little avail. The train has become a brutal symbol of all that was lost.
It all came about, says Zweig, because of a horrific confluence of interests. Jews -- one-fifth of the Hungary's population in 1910 -- had been accepted as part of the country's fabric until the 1930s. But a government increasingly sympathetic to the Nazis gradually tightened laws against them, and when World War II turned against Germany, things got worse.
"What you have here," he says, "are two processes at work. The German army and foreign office had their own strategic interests in Hungary. Their concern is that the internal domestic situation be as quiet as possible.
"The SS has another agenda. On the one hand the ideological mass murderers who want to finish the Jewish problem say, 'This is our opportunity.' The 800,000 Jews of Hungary ... had survived until 1944. The Hungarian government had not cooperated with the Germans to ship them off to Auschwitz, too."
But a new government dominated by Hungarian fascists was "eager, willing and efficient collaborators in the system," Zweig says. In 12 weeks, 437,000 people were shipped off to Auschwitz, at the rate sometimes of 12,000 a day.
Precise inventories taken, then Hungarian Jews killed
The Nazis, as usual, were remarkably efficient. The Jews' belongings were minutely chronicled, Zweig says.
"The crucial period, April 1944, the Jews are handing over their property; it's put into individual bags and closed in front of them," he says. "The address is recorded, and they're given receipts, but within weeks that all becomes meaningless because these people are shipped off to Auschwitz and they don't survive."
Afterward, the Hungarians opened the envelopes, put everything into piles and re-sorted the material into categories. "You couldn't identify ownership anymore, but the inventory was fairly exact," Zweig says.
What Zweig tried to find out with "The Gold Train" was both why and what: Why Hungary, why so late in the war, and what happened to the plunder?
The first two answers are political, he observes, the first having to do with shifting government loyalties toward support for the Nazis after the country's loss in World War I, the second having to do with maintaining German survival.
"By 1944, we know that the Germans fully realize they're losing the war, and everybody is trying to elbow for a better position and accumulate the assets necessary to negotiate with the Allies, to help Germany survive until the grand alliance of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt breaks down, or just to flee to Latin America. In Hungary it becomes very obvious and very ugly," he says.
Scattered and vanished
But as for what happened to the riches of the Gold Train, Zweig surmises that a clever Hungarian named Árpád Toldi, appointed by the SS as "commissioner of Jewish affairs," managed to disperse them through a bait-and-switch.
By December 1944, the Red Army was driving hard on Budapest, and the decision was made to evacuate the Jewish loot. Toldi supervised the sorting, packing and departure of a 42-car freight train loaded with the valuables of 800,000 civilians.
This train meandered its way westward through Hungary into Austria, with Toldi buying off marauding squads of drunken fascist troops of various stripes with lesser pieces of loot. The core cache of gold and diamonds was diverted to a small flotilla of trucks.
"Toldi knows very well what's going to happen at the end, and he avoids any detailed inventories being made," Zweig recounts with a smile. "So when the people on the train realize they've been [had], that Toldi has the real gold and diamonds, they ask themselves, 'Well, who has the inventory?' And they discover that no one has."
The Gold Train wound up in Austria, but its booty was scattered through various points along its route and probably beyond. With the train itself passing through first French and then American hands, and stories of hoards of Nazi loot springing up all over Allied occupation areas, the Gold Train became lost in the innumerable myths of Nazi war treasures.
Claims were laid to the surviving assets on the train by the Soviets, Hungarians and (not incidentally) the two major Jewish organizations overseeing the welfare of Holocaust survivors in Europe.
Nobody knows how much the train was worth. The Hungarian government and Hungarian Jewish organizations estimated $350 million in 1945 dollars, or between $3 billion and $4 billion today.
The bulk of the Gold Train assets in Allied hands was eventually allocated to the Jewish relief organizations to finance the evacuation of Hungarian Holocaust survivors to what was then Palestine. Hungarian Jewish survivors did not receive the money directly. "In this case, justice has been done but not seen to be done," Zweig says.
But then there's the money that didn't make it to Allied hands -- the assets in Russian hands or successfully spirited away by Toldi's accomplices in 1945. That trail has vanished, leaving innumerable unanswered questions.
Most important, where is the money now?
Zweig answers in one word that describes so much of the tragedy of the Holocaust: "Gone."