For some Holocaust survivors and their supporters, a Senate subcommittee hearing this week was their last chance to collect on the Nazi-era life insurance policies of their parents.
The survivors asked that Congress adopt legislation that would require insurance companies doing business in the United States to publish the names of all policyholders from the pre-war era. If the companies then refused to settle claims on reasonable terms, survivors and their heirs could sue them during the next 10 years.
“If Congress does not act quickly,” said Jack Rubin, a survivor, “I am afraid that all survivors’ rights against [Assicurazioni] Generali might be lost.”
Generali is Italy’s largest insurance company.
“Please move swiftly and make it clear that the U.S. Congress does not endorse the denial of basic rights to survivors,” he added.
But Roman Kent, another survivor, said he feared that the legislation would not achieve its goal but rather might “unjustifiably generate huge expectations that, in the end, will not be met [and] which will have a profoundly negative impact on survivors.”
Kent was a member of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC), which resolved more than 90,000 claims for Holocaust survivors and their heirs.
Before it completed its work last year, it arranged for insurance companies to pay $306 million to more than 48,000 Holocaust victims or their heirs for previously unpaid insurance policies.
Of the amount paid, more than half went to individuals who had so little information about their potential claim that they were unable to identify even the company that may have issued the policy, according to Lawrence Eagleburger, the chairman of ICHEIC.
He pointed out that in addition to the $306 million in payments, the commission arranged for insurance companies to distribute another $200 million for humanitarian purposes.
“We recognize that no commission can resolve the wrongs done by the Holocaust,” Eagleburger said. “We firmly believe, however, that our efforts brought some measure of justice to the lives of thousands of survivors, their families, and the families of those who perished.”
Stuart Eizenstat, the secretary of state for Holocaust issues during the Clinton administration, testified that insurance companies participated in the ICHEIC process in the belief it would be the exclusive remedy for resolving all insurance claims stemming from the Nazi era.
“The interests of survivors and heirs were broadly and vigorously represented throughout the negotiations,” he said.
If Congress were to now pass this legislation, Eizenstat argued, “the consequences of upsetting United States foreign policy interests will likely be wide-ranging. First, the bill essentially and fundamentally threatens our existing Executive Agreements with Germany and Austria and would undermine confidence in our Executive Agreement with France.”
In those agreements, the U.S. agreed that all insurance companies in those countries that participated in the ICHEIC process would have “legal peace.”
“Second,” Eizenstat said, “survivors’ groups, such as the Claims Conference, continually seek to increase payments under our existing arrangements. It would impair the ability of those groups to successfully negotiate such enlargements in the future if Congress passes this bill.”
In a letter to the Senate, the American Jewish Committee weighed in against the bill, warning that it would “open the door to a new set of legal battles in American courts” and “create false expectations among claimants.” And it said that although the ICHEIC process has ended, “participating insurance companies have agreed to continue to receive new claims. …
“Although not perfect, we believe these measures should be sufficient to address the concerns of individual survivors who may still have insurance claims to pursue,” it said.
The Agudath Israel of America also wrote a letter opposing the bill, as did the Holocaust Restitution Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and several other groups.
The sponsor of the companion House bill, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), said in prepared remarks that the House bill has passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is awaiting action by the House Financial Services Committee. She said passage of the legislation is necessary “to bring a level of closure to the survivors and deprive the insurance companies from being unjustly enriched from the horrors of the Holocaust.”
Samuel Dubbin, a Miami lawyer representing Holocaust survivors, said the survivors are “crying out for justice and for a fair shake from the American political system … Without legislative relief, hundreds of thousands of unpaid policies worth $18 billion in 2007 dollars — if not more — sold to Jews before World War II would evaporate and be inherited by multinational insurers …. ”
“The survivors I represent are only asking Congress to restore the rights they always assumed they had, and that no legislative body or even executive branch action purported to deny them the right to have their injuries redressed in the courts of this country,” he said.
Dubbin added that “only 3 percent of the funds owed by the insurers to Holocaust victims’ families have been paid.”
Meanwhile, the chairman of the subcommittee, Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), said in a statement that he and three colleagues plan to introduce a bipartisan resolution “urging all countries, especially those in the former Eastern Europe, to enact fair and comprehensive private and communal property restitution legislation and to do so as quickly as possible.”
The move was welcomed by Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, who pointed out that Poland is a key country that has yet to adopt a Holocaust restitution program.
“This action will bring the spotlight of the U.S. Senate on this critical issue,” he said.