- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) - A federal appeals court in Chicago heard arguments Tuesday about whether lawsuits accusing Hungary’s national bank and railway of stealing cash, art and other assets from Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust should proceed through U.S. or Hungarian courts.

More than 500,000 Hungarian Jews died, many after being sent by train to Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps outside Hungary; some were forced to purchase tickets on the Hungarian trains that carried them to their deaths, according to court filings.

Those who brought the legal action say the value of losses to Hungarian Jews during World War II was around $75 billion. Lawyers representing the plaintiffs - survivors of the Holocaust in Hungary and heirs of victims - haven’t indicated how much they’ll actually seek in damages, though it could run into the billions of dollars.

The matter landed in Chicago after the survivors and heirs filed lawsuits in the U.S. Court for the Northern District of Illinois in 2010, saying they had no confidence Hungarian courts would give them fair hearings.

They appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after the lower court ruled that they must at least try to sue in Hungary first. If they exhaust legal avenues there, they could then bid to sue through a U.S. court, the lower court judge said.

But in arguments Tuesday before a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit, lawyers for the survivors and heirs said going through Hungarian courts would be futile, contending that the judiciary in Hungary has previously stonewalled Holocaust-related cases.

Attorney Kenneth McCallion said the survivors and heirs he represents are also elderly, and so had neither the time nor money to sue in what he described as a biased and unwieldy Hungarian system.

“They can find no justice in Hungary,” he said.

An attorney for Hungarian State Railways disputed that. Konrad Cailteux said at Tuesday’s hearing that Hungary’s court system is “fair and well-functioning.”

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