Three Holocaust survivors told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Nov. 16 that without federal legislation allowing them to file suit against insurance companies for policies issued before the rise of the Nazis, they and their families will have no way to recover benefits under those policies.
Congress is weighing legislation that would allow Holocaust survivors and claimants to sue European life insurers for unpaid Holocaust-era claims. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., introduced parallel bills in their respective chambers earlier this year (Best's News Service, March 4, 2011).
Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, held a hearing to debate her version of the bill, HR 890, which would provide the survivors with access to U.S. courts and also force companies such as Germany'sAllianz SE and Italy'sAssicurazioni Generali to disclose lists of policies held by Jews before World War II.
David Schaecter, a Holocaust survivor who serves as president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, testified that with so many Holocaust survivors reaching advanced age, the time is running out for them to recover benefits he said should go to either them or their families.
"Time is of the essence," Schaecter said. "Insurance policies are a contract. These companies should be required to honor their contracts."
Thousands of policyholders have seen their claims denied because they didn't have the proper paperwork, according to a statement read by Ros-Lehtinen. That was despite the fact that Nazis who were working to ship Jews to death camps were hardly interested in allowing them to keep their papers in order, Ros-Lehtinen said.
"If survivors of these atrocities came to the United States looking for freedom and opportunity, the companies they bought policies from in their homeland shouldn't deny them," Ros-Lehtinen said.
Leo Bretholz, a Holocaust survivor and author of "Leap into Darkness," described some of the atrocities he and his fellow survivors had endured, including being herded into rail cars filled with human waste, separated from their families and being shipped off to death camps. Bretholz survived that ordeal by jumping from one of those trains while it was en route to a death camp.
Renee Firestone, another Holocaust survivor who appeared in the Academy Award-winning Holocaust documentary "The Last Days," said survivors are "not beggars," but they simply want what is owed to them under policies they purchased from companies in good faith.
"When we tried to make our claims with the insurance companies, they had the audacity to tell us that we needed birth information or a death certificate. Well, they know quite well that the Nazis didn't issue death certificates," Firestone said. "It's bad enough that the Nazis stripped us of our dignity, lives and possessions -- down to the last hairs on our heads. But these insurance companies are refusing to treat us with dignity as well. All we want is our day in court."
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., said he thinks not only should Holocaust survivors have standing to file claims-related lawsuits in U.S. courts but European insurance companies should be required to post policies of people born more than 100 years ago online so family members who may not even know their relative owned a policy can track down unpaid benefits. "The fact that these companies are holding that money even though a Holocaust victim died 50 years ago raises the question: 'Are these the kinds of businesses that should be allowed to do business with American consumers in the first place?'" Sherman asked.
In 2008, Congress considered a measure that would have created a publicly accessible Holocaust Insurance Registry. Organized under the auspices of the National Archives and Records Administration, the registry would have granted survivors and their families the right to sue insurers that don't file disclosures with the registry (Best's News Service, June 26, 2008).
The International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, which ran from 1998 to 2007, claimed to have helped more than 48,000 survivors and their heirs recover roughly $300 million from 70 insurance companies, with an additional $200 million in contributions provided by the companies to charities and humanitarian organizations.
But critics, including Ros-Lehtinen, have charged the commission did not make sufficient efforts to investigate Holocaust survivor claims (Best's News Service, June 26, 2008).
(By Jeff Jeffrey, Washington Correspondent: firstname.lastname@example.org)