Holocaust victims suing Germany and Hungary have cases heard at Supreme Court

The Supreme Court will on Monday look into cases against both Germany and Hungary over atrocities committed against Holocaust victims by the Nazis. 

In the case involving Germany, the descendants of a group of Jewish art dealers say their ancestors were forced to sell a collection of religious art, known as the Guelph Treasure and called the Welfenschatz in German, to the Nazi government in 1935.  

The court also agreed to hear Hungary’s bid to avoid litigation brought by US citizens who survived that nation’s campaign of genocide against its Jewish population. 

Justices will decide whether the dispute involving foreign citizens suing a foreign government belongs in US courts; any decision could open the door to similar lawsuits against foreign countries.  

The US Justice Department says the cases should be dismissed, agreeing with lawyers for Germany and Hungary.  

The cupola reliquary (Kuppelreliquar) of the so-called "Welfenschatz" (Guelph Treasure) is pictured at the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Berlin

The cupola reliquary (Kuppelreliquar) of the so-called "Welfenschatz" (Guelph Treasure) is pictured at the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Berlin

The cupola reliquary (Kuppelreliquar) of the so-called ‘Welfenschatz’ (Guelph Treasure) is pictured at the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Berlin

A medieval Cross, part of the Welfenschatz, is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin. One of Germany's most precious collections of medieval Christian art is at the center of a complicated ownership dispute between the foundation that oversees the Berlin museums and the heirs of Jewish art dealers who claim their ancestors had to sell the objects to the Nazis under pressure in 1935

A medieval Cross, part of the Welfenschatz, is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin. One of Germany's most precious collections of medieval Christian art is at the center of a complicated ownership dispute between the foundation that oversees the Berlin museums and the heirs of Jewish art dealers who claim their ancestors had to sell the objects to the Nazis under pressure in 1935

Part of the religious art, known as the Guelph Treasure and called the Welfenschatz in German is pictured

Part of the religious art, known as the Guelph Treasure and called the Welfenschatz in German is pictured

One of Germany’s most precious collections of medieval Christian art is at the center of a complicated ownership dispute between the foundation that oversees the Berlin museums and the heirs of Jewish art dealers who claim their ancestors had to sell the objects to the Nazis under pressure in 1935

In the German case, Jed Leiber says his grandfather, Saemy Rosenberg, was once part-owner of the collection of the centuries-old religious artworks now said to be worth at least $250 million. The prominent art dealer fled Germany after Adolf Hitler came to power.

The collection includes elaborate containers used to store Christian relics; small, intricate altars and ornate crosses. Many are silver or gold and decorated with gems. 

The plaintiffs said its sale to the state of Prussia, then being administered by prominent Nazi official Hermann Goering, was a ‘sham transaction’ made under duress and that their ancestors received just 35 percent of the art’s market value.  

At this point, the Guelph Treasure case is not about whether Leiber’s grandfather and the two other Frankfurt art dealer firms that joined to purchase the collection in 1929 were forced to sell it, a claim Germany and the foundation dispute. 

It’s just about whether Leiber and two other heirs of those dealers, New Mexico resident Alan Philipp and London resident Gerald Stiebel, can continue seeking the objects’ return in U.S. courts.  

In 2015, Leiber’s quest for the collection led to a lawsuit against Germany and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. The state-run foundation owns the collection and runs Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts, where the collection is housed. 

Germany and the foundation asked the trial-level court to dismiss the suit, but the court declined. An appeals court also kept the suit alive.

Now, the Supreme Court, which has been hearing arguments by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic, will weigh in.  

Jed Leiber is pictured. His grandfather, Saemy Rosenberg, was once part-owner of the collection of the centuries-old religious artworks now said to be worth at least $250 million. The prominent art dealer fled Germany after Adolf Hitler came to power

Jed Leiber is pictured. His grandfather, Saemy Rosenberg, was once part-owner of the collection of the centuries-old religious artworks now said to be worth at least $250 million. The prominent art dealer fled Germany after Adolf Hitler came to power

Jed Leiber is pictured. His grandfather, Saemy Rosenberg, was once part-owner of the collection of the centuries-old religious artworks now said to be worth at least $250 million. The prominent art dealer fled Germany after Adolf Hitler came to power

Saemy Rosenberg, right, poses for a photo with two unidentified men. The prominent art dealer fled Germany after Adolf Hitler came to power

Saemy Rosenberg, right, poses for a photo with two unidentified men. The prominent art dealer fled Germany after Adolf Hitler came to power

Saemy Rosenberg, right, poses for a photo with two unidentified men. The prominent art dealer fled Germany after Adolf Hitler came to power

The separate case involving Hungarian Holocaust victims, including four American citizens and initially brought in 2010, is being heard the same day.                   

The Hungarian Holocaust survivors, who aim to represent a class of survivors who have been injured in similar ways, are seeking restitution for possessions taken from them and their families when they were forced to board trains destined for concentration camps.  

They argue the possessions were taken in violation of international law. Their lawyer, Sarah Harrington, said: ‘Hungary committed in the 1947 peace treaty to fully compensate its victim and it has never done so.

‘Congress said courts could hear these claims and even the United States has said there is a moral imperative to provide justice for Holocaust victims in their lifetime.’

Gregory Silbert, a lawyer for Hungary, said: ‘Adjudicating these claims would inevitably disrupt foreign relations and could expose the United States to similar treatment by other nations’ judges.’

Supreme Court justices will decide whether the dispute involving foreign citizens suing a foreign government belongs in US courts; any decision could open the door to similar lawsuits against foreign countries

Supreme Court justices will decide whether the dispute involving foreign citizens suing a foreign government belongs in US courts; any decision could open the door to similar lawsuits against foreign countries

Supreme Court justices will decide whether the dispute involving foreign citizens suing a foreign government belongs in US courts; any decision could open the door to similar lawsuits against foreign countries

Nicholas M. O’Donnell, who represents the heirs of the art dealers, said in July: ‘Germany seeks to eliminate recourse for Nazi-looted art and the Court will have the chance to answer this question of critical importance for Holocaust victims.’

Jonathan Freiman, one of Germany’s lawyers, said in an email: ‘We’re glad that the Supreme Court will hear the case and look forward to explaining why this dispute doesn’t belong in a U.S. court.’  

In a statement, Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, argued that the suit should be dismissed. The foundation and Germany have the Trump administration’s support.

‘Our view is that Germany is the proper jurisdiction for a case which involves a sale of a collection of medieval German art by German art dealers to a German state,’ Parzinger said. 

A retractable altar (Klappaltaerchen) of the so-called 'Welfenschatz' (Guelph Treasure) is pictured at the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Berlin. The plaintiffs said its sale to the state of Prussia, then being administered by prominent Nazi official Hermann Goering, was a 'sham transaction' made under duress and that their ancestors received just 35 percent of the art's market value

A retractable altar (Klappaltaerchen) of the so-called 'Welfenschatz' (Guelph Treasure) is pictured at the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Berlin. The plaintiffs said its sale to the state of Prussia, then being administered by prominent Nazi official Hermann Goering, was a 'sham transaction' made under duress and that their ancestors received just 35 percent of the art's market value

A retractable altar (Klappaltaerchen) of the so-called ‘Welfenschatz’ (Guelph Treasure) is pictured at the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Berlin. The plaintiffs said its sale to the state of Prussia, then being administered by prominent Nazi official Hermann Goering, was a ‘sham transaction’ made under duress and that their ancestors received just 35 percent of the art’s market value

Detail of a reliquary crucifix of the so-called 'Welfenschatz' (Guelph Treasure) is pictured at the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Berlin. At this point, the Guelph Treasure case is not about whether Leiber's grandfather and the two other Frankfurt art dealer firms that joined to purchase the collection in 1929 were forced to sell it, a claim Germany and the foundation dispute

Detail of a reliquary crucifix of the so-called 'Welfenschatz' (Guelph Treasure) is pictured at the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Berlin. At this point, the Guelph Treasure case is not about whether Leiber's grandfather and the two other Frankfurt art dealer firms that joined to purchase the collection in 1929 were forced to sell it, a claim Germany and the foundation dispute

Detail of a reliquary crucifix of the so-called ‘Welfenschatz’ (Guelph Treasure) is pictured at the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Berlin. At this point, the Guelph Treasure case is not about whether Leiber’s grandfather and the two other Frankfurt art dealer firms that joined to purchase the collection in 1929 were forced to sell it, a claim Germany and the foundation dispute

The suit’s claim that the Guelph Treasure was sold under Nazi pressure was also diligently investigated in Germany, he said. The foundation found that the sale was made voluntarily and for fair market value. A German commission dedicated to investigating claims of property stolen by the Nazis agreed. 

Parzinger said records ‘clearly show that there were long and tough negotiations on the price and that the two sides met exactly in the middle of their initial starting prices.’

The art dealers’ heirs, however, say the purchase price, 4.25 million Reichsmark, was about one-third of what the collection was worth. Under international law principles, sales of property by Jews in Nazi Germany are also presumed to have been done under pressure and therefore invalid, said the heirs’ attorney, Nicholas O’Donnell. 

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