Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch
Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, seen delivering remarks in 2017, asked why descendants of German Jews should be forced to seek remedies in Germany in the first place. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images via JTA)

Local attorney Jonathan Schwartz leads a local effort by the Jewish Bar Association of Michigan known as the Holocaust Art Recovery Initiative.

In a case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 7, the Trump administration argued that Holocaust restitution claims should be heard outside the United States, claiming that the Foreign Sovereignty Immunities Act protects foreign governments from having to defend claims in U.S. courts.

Local attorney Jonathan Schwartz, a partner at Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss P.C., believes the administration’s argument is wrong and says that based on the oral arguments, he is “optimistic that a majority of the Supreme Court Justices will agree.”

Jonathan Schwartz
Jonathan Schwartz

In the two cases currently before the court, Holocaust survivors and their heirs are seeking restitution for thefts of artwork incurred during the Holocaust. One case involves Germany, and the other involves Hungary.

Schwartz leads a local effort by the Jewish Bar Association of Michigan known as the Holocaust Art Recovery Initiative. It aims to combat the “ongoing injustice of unreturned artwork looted by the Nazis and their collaborators, which has been called the greatest displacement of art in human history.”

The effort was launched last year in response to passage of a federal law that allows more time — until Jan. 1, 2027 — for Holocaust victims and/or their descendants to file for the return of valuable artwork stolen from their families during the Nazi era (1933-1945).

Schwartz said he advised Hadassah’s director of governmental relations to co-sign an amicus curiae brief authored by the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists supporting the ability of Holocaust victims and their descendants to file claims in the U.S.

“The facts, law, morality and justice require opening U.S. courts to these lawsuits, especially claims for recovery of stolen art,” Schwartz said. 

According to Schwartz, there is a long history of plaintiffs suing foreign countries in U.S. courts, including for claims related to the Holocaust. He said there are “various legal arguments that justify allowing these lawsuits to proceed here, but the most compelling reason to me is that victims and their descendants, many of them U.S. citizens, will not receive a fair hearing in Germany, and especially not in Hungary.”

Schwartz shared that Clara Garbon-Radnoti, a local Holocaust survivor, recently discovered “smoking gun” evidence stored in the archives of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills that exposes the massive theft of important and valuable artwork from Hungarian Jews by the government and museums, which have still never been returned.

That evidence includes 180 microfilm reels related to Jews in Hungary during World War II from Hungarian government agencies, Office of Military Chief of Staff, county/district/city/town/village administrations, police, courts and local Jewish communities. According to Schwartz, the materials document the legal and illegal means by which the Hungarian, German and local authorities accomplished their goals and include thousands of documents showing theft of artwork (inventories), transit documents and acknowledgment of receipts from Hungarian museums.

Schwartz added that Donald Blinken, former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary from 1994-97, publicly accused the Hungarian government of backtracking on promises to take responsibility for the looting of art from Jewish citizens.

“To be blunt,” Schwartz says, “victims of the Holocaust cannot expect any justice in biased court systems located in countries that are still unwilling to take full responsibility for their misconduct.”

He said a related compelling point was made by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who remarked during oral arguments that: “If Jewish victims of the Holocaust were deemed noncitizens, stripped of their citizenship, at least in Germany, why should they then have to go exhaust remedies elsewhere” [than the U.S.]? 

The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in June, and Schwartz is hoping it will be in favor of the Holocaust victims and their heirs in both cases, which will allow them, as well as many other cases, to proceed in U.S. federal courts.

Schwartz continues to work with Garbon-Radnoti and the Holocaust Memorial Center to ensure the “smoking gun” Hungarian documents are available to all potential claimants.

“The Jewish people deserve a fair hearing to right this historical wrong and reclaim an important part of our cultural heritage,” Schwartz said. “The arguments for recovery are compelling, although I anticipate Germany and Hungary will continue to obstruct, which is unfortunately consistent with their behavior for so many years.”

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