U.S. Mulls Bill Allowing Survivors to Claim Holocaust-era Insurance Policies in Europe

American legislation would enable survivors to discuss claims against European insurance companies in federal courts; worth of unclaimed policies estimated at $20 billion.

A group of Holocaust survivors came to the Capitol Hill on Thursday to urge lawmakers to pass the Tom Lantos Act, named after the late Congressman from California, the only Holocaust survivor to have served at the U.S. Congress.

The bill, co-sponsored by Florida Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) and Ted Deutch (D) would allow Holocaust survivors to sue European insurance companies that didn't honor WWII-era insurance policies in U.S. federal courts - and to make those companies disclose lists of insurance policies that belonged to Jewish clients over 60 years ago.

While it the precise accumulated worth of these policies isn't known, the total could reach as much as $20 billion in today's currency. But because in many cases the documents were destroyed, company archives are in many cases the only source of information, and some survivors that were kids during that era don't even know for sure their parents had life insurance policies.

However, that's not the only hurdle, of course Holocaust survivors are met with, as they are denied access to the U.S. court, forced to settle their claims through the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC), established in 1998 by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, and that has already paid about $305 million.

The bill to allow appellants access to U.S. courts passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but Rep. Ros-Lehtinen admitted at the press-conference Thursday it still has hurdles ahead, as it must still get through the House Judiciary Committee, which didn't give so far any encouraging signs.

Its chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex), hinted he is not sure there was a need for such law, since there was an existing avenue to settle the claims, and since many Jewish organizations actually oppose this process.

Speaking on the affair, Ros-Lehtinen said that "Holocaust survivors continue to be treated as second class citizens and denied their constitutional right to sue insurance companies that refused to honor Holocaust era policies," reminding that her district is home to one of the largest Holocaust survivors communities in the U.S.

"All they want is to bring their case before an unbiased judge in the U.S. federal court system. It's far past time to bring this legislation to president's desk and give these survivors justice they've been denied. Survivors are in their 80s and 90s, we are running out of time," she said, adding: "No remedy can heal these wounds, but we can prevent these companies to enrich themselves on crimes of Nazis at the expense of the survivors. These companies sponsor media shows, they have all the money to fight these survivors."

Asked by Haaretz whether, considering their age and the fact that the court process is a lengthy and costly one, the courts were the right venue to deal with the issue, Ros-Lehtinen replied it's not only about the money - survivors descendants can carry on the legal battle - but fairness.

This bill, she added, was simpler than previous attempts to solve the issue. "It strikes at the heart of essence of America of having your day in court. These survivors are shut from the system."

Rep. Ted Deutch said that if the insurance companies could spend a fraction of the money they spend on advertisement on opening their archives to settle the claims. He reminded that "75% of survivors live in poverty. In my district, I hear about ongoin battles they face - sometimes they gave to decide between food and medicine, and this is a battle they shouldn't have to fight."

At Congress, lawmakers and survivors were joined by late Tom Lantos family members, including his widow, Annette Lantos, who said that "sometimes even well meaning organizations can lose sight of right and wrong. These mega insurance companies compounded on crimes of the Holocaust era by refusing to honor Holocaust-era policies. Many survivors died in desperation waiting for insurance from French, English other companies they should have received decades ago."

Leo Rechter, executive director of the "National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors" (NAHOS), told Haaretz that he didn't know if his parents had life insurance - but he assumes they did.

"The insurance company should keep the records until it's been paid off. We are not asking public or the Congress to give us any money. We want the companies to open their records and see what's in their - and the right, like any other citizen, to go to the court. Insurance companies on their own won't go out to look for heirs to pay off their policies. Even in our case, when we come forward, they use every means possible - they shred documents, they lose documents, they tell us we are not entitled because we don't have all documents, you don't have death certificate. Why? I think it's simple greed. Every American citizen has the right to contact court if he feels he has been unfairly treated. We the Holocaust survivors do not have this right because some executive branch bureaucracies, although the executive branch shouldn't have the power to interfere in people's right to go to court."

David Mermelstein from Florida, survivor of Auschwitz concentration camp, attacked the Jewish organizations that refused to support the legislative effort. "These organizations are against it for a simple reason - money. Who are they to speak for us? Do they go to Florida to see how these survivors live?"

Jay Ipson told at the press-conference that during the Holocaust, all his family but his mother and him, were executed.

"Those nazis had their day in court. Some of them were tried. As Holocaust survivor, I am not asking for anything nazis didn't get. I was in the army, we served for this country, greatest country on the world - but we can't get justice. Our parents destroyed documents so the nazis couldn't come after us. I am 77, one of the youngest survivors. I don't need anything, but there are Holocaust survivors that can't afford medication. We were children at the time, we don't know if our parents had insurance policies - and we want insurance companies to open their archives. Commission they created was a sham."