Aging survivors of the Nazi Holocaust plan to protest outside a political fundraiser featuring President Barack Obama this week to publicize their struggle to collect what they say is $20 billion in Jewish insurance policies never paid by European companies.
Members of the Holocaust Survivors' Foundation USA want Obama and Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson to push legislation that would force companies such as Germany's Allianz SE and Italy's Assicurazioni Generali to disclose lists of pre-World War II policies. The bill would also give survivors the right to sue the insurers in U.S. courts to satisfy their claims.
"We were stripped of everything our families owned, and only a fraction has been restored," said 84-year-old Joe Sachs, a native of Poland who survived several concentration camps.
Obama and Nelson are scheduled to appear Friday at the ritzy Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach for an event that aims to raise millions for Democrats in the 2012 elections. Nelson, Florida's only statewide elected Democrat, is up for re-election next year.
The survivors' group contends that Nelson broke a promise to introduce legislation on the issue, which his office denies. The survivors also say Obama courted them during his 2008 campaign with similar pledges of support that have not been forthcoming.
Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said the senator has long supported Holocaust survivors' issues, beginning in the 1990s when as Florida's insurance commissioner he was involved in an effort to force European companies to begin paying restitution.
McLaughlin said Nelson followed through on his promise to hold a hearing on the group's legislation, but found some Jewish organizations opposed the bill.
The bill has been introduced in past years in the House. In 2010, Jewish organizations including the Anti-Defamation League and B'nai B'rith International said it might "raise unreasonable hopes and set up false expectations" among survivors with war-era insurance policies. And, they said, it could jeopardize negotiations with the German government for money for home health care or other services.
"Nelson has staff looking for an alternative solution that would benefit all survivors, perhaps through a pilot program that could provide long-term care," McLaughlin said.
White House officials declined comment.
Many Jewish families who tried to collect on policies taken out by people killed in Nazi camps were told they needed the original paperwork or a death certificate, neither of which was available.
Sam Dubbin, an attorney for the survivors, said various postwar claims funds and commissions have resulted in payment of only about 3 percent of the 879,000 life, property and other policies held by European Jews in 1938-39. Those policies, worth about $600 million then, would be projected at about $20 billion today, he said.
Herbert Karliner said he was told his father's Allianz life insurance policy was paid to an unknown person on Nov. 9, 1938 _ the date of Kristallnacht, in which Jews in Germany and Austria were attacked and their businesses burned.
Karliner said his father's store was burned that night and he was taken by German SS troops to the Buchenwald concentration camp.
"I doubt my father stopped by the Allianz office on the way to Buchenwald to cash in his policy," Karliner said. "Though I was a small child, this is something you never forget."
Sabia Schwarzer, vice president at Allianz of America, said the company has acknowledged its collaboration with the Nazi regime. She said the Third Reich forced Allianz and other insurers to surrender Jewish policies and assets.
"The companies had to cooperate with the Nazi government or they would have probably been out of business," Schwarzer said. "It wasn't like Allianz kept any of that."
Since the 1950s several organizations have been created to deal with insurance and other claims by Holocaust survivors and their families, including the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims. That organization offered or awarded some $306 million to 48,000 claimants from 1998 to 2007 _ a sum many survivors say is woefully inadequate.
Schwarzer said the company is willing to listen to anyone with a claim from the World War II era.
"We will always investigate that. It is absolutely an open door for anybody who thinks they may have something that is not settled," she said.
Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA: http://hsf-usa.org/