Holocaust survivors and heirs of victims can't sue Hungary's national bank and railway in the U.S. for the theft of cash, art and other assets from Hungarian Jews until they first exhaust their legal options in Hungary itself, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court's dismissal of the lawsuits filed in the Northern District of Illinois in 2010.
More than 500,000 Hungarian Jews died in the Holocaust during World War II, many forced to buy tickets for trains that carried them to Nazi concentration camps outside Hungary. The value of their losses ran into the billions, plaintiffs say.
During oral arguments in September, plaintiffs' attorneys argued that going through Hungarian courts would be futile, and that Hungary's judiciary has stonewalled other Holocaust-related cases.
Konrad Cailteux, an attorney for one of the defendants, Hungarian State Railways, disputed that as he welcomed Friday's ruling.
"The Hungarian judicial system is a well-functioning system," he said. "I believe the plaintiffs can get a fair hearing."
Attorneys for the plaintiffs — survivors of the Holocaust in Hungary and heirs of victims — didn't immediately return phone messages Friday.
Judge David Hamilton, who wrote Friday's opinion, questioned whether there was proof Hungarian state bodies would obstruct those with Holocaust-related grievances.
"The evidence in the record supports understandable concerns about whether plaintiffs can receive a fair hearing in Hungary," he wrote. "But those concerns remain too speculative to justify taking this case from Hungarian courts."
Hamilton noted that African-American civil rights activists in the '50s were similarly skeptical about U.S. courts, "Yet," he writes, "our courts by and large rose to the challenge."
The plaintiffs could try U.S. courts again if they can't get a fair hearing in Hungary. "While the doors of United States courts are closed to these claims for now," Hamilton wrote, "they are not locked forever."