In a plea for justice, a House panel pushed ahead legislation Wednesday that would allow thousands of aging Holocaust survivors in the United States to sue European insurance companies for benefits they estimate total $20 billion.
The Foreign Affairs Committee approved a bill by voice vote that would give survivors access to U.S. courts and force companies such as Germany's Allianz SE and Italy's Assicurazioni Generali to disclose lists of policies held by Jews before World War II. Among the policies are life insurance, annuities and even dowries that Jewish families purchased for their daughters, envisioning that they would receive the money upon turning 18.
In many cases, insurance company records and government archives are the only proof of existence of the insurance policies.
"This bill is the last hope for Holocaust survivors to obtain justice," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the committee chairman, whose district is home to many of the estimated 100,000 Holocaust survivors in the United States.
Among those attending the committee session was David Schaecter, 82, who survived the Auschwitz and Buchenwald death camps and is president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA.
"In very plain and ordinary language, what happed today is we got back some of the dignity taken away from us," Schaecter of Miami said in a telephone interview. "Anyone can sue anyone. ... We're the only ones not allowed to sue."
The legislation has lingered in Congress for about five years and the House Judiciary Committee still must consider the bill. It faces opposition from the U.S. State Department and the German government. Germany points to the billions of dollars in reparations and payments it has made to survivors and other victims of the Nazi regime. The International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims paid about $305 million, and an additional $200 million went to humanitarian programs for survivors.
The State Department told the committee this week that the legislation would force the reopening of long-settled Holocaust-era insurance cases that were resolved through diplomatic agreements, restitution programs through other countries or international commissions.
The bill would "open the floodgates to litigation, undermine commitments made by the United States, and weaken our ability to achieve such settlements in the future," the State Department said.
The department said the bill would deal a setback to the cause of bringing justice to Holocaust survivors and other victims of the Nazi era rather than advancing the cause.
Survivors estimate that the policies were worth about $600 million in 1938 and a calculation based on the savings bond yield, would put that amount at $20 billion today.
Associated Press writer Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.