Thousands of aging Holocaust survivors in the U.S. want Congress to clear a path for them to sue European insurance companies they contend illegally confiscated Jewish life insurance policies during the Nazi era and have refused to pay an estimated $20 billion still owed.
A hearing is scheduled Wednesday in the House Foreign Affairs Committee on a bill that would provide the survivors with access to U.S. courts and also 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.
David Schaecter, who survived the Auschwitz death camp and now lives in Miami, is set to testify at the hearing. He described the current U.S. policy barring survivors from suing the companies as unfair. Schaecter, 82 and originally from Slovakia, is president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA.
"It's a shameful thing. We have been robbed of our dignity," Schaecter said in an interview. "We are survivors, and yet we are not allowed to sue a person or a company or an entity like every other person has a right to do."
The legislation's sponsor, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., represents many of the estimated 100,000 Holocaust survivors in the U.S. and also chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. Although the bill has been around in various forms for at least five years, Ros-Lehtinen said she is hopeful it could pass this year. The measure has 51 co-sponsors in the House and a companion bill in the Senate.
"We can't tell these survivors to continue to wait. Their time is running short," she said. "The insurance companies have got the money. What they don't have is shame."
Yet despite their highly sympathetic stories, the Holocaust survivors have run into stiff opposition not only from the German and U.S. governments but also from major Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and B'nai B'rith International.
Peter Ammon, Germany's ambassador to the U.S., wrote Ros-Lehtinen that his government has paid billions of dollars to Holocaust survivors and other victims of the Third Reich. He noted that the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims paid some $305 million, with another $200 million going into humanitarian programs for survivors.
When that commission was created in 1998, Ammon said insurers "were promised comprehensive and permanent legal peace in the United States."
"Voluntary agreements have the advantage of benefiting large numbers of survivors, not just the few who are successful in the courts," Ammon said.
The survivors, however, insist the payments are woefully inadequate. And, they say, Allianz and the other insurers have demanded that claimants produce documents such as death certificates _ the Nazis didn't issue those for the millions of death camp victims _ or policies that were lost in the tumult of a world war.
Schaecter said he remembers as a child his parents keeping small containers with the names of insurance companies on them where money was deposited. Each month, an insurance agent would come to pick up the containers. That, he said, is the kind of evidence a jury might find compelling even without the policy documentation.
"For people in Eastern Europe, insurance was a way of life," he said.
Allianz, which has a major presence in the U.S., has found itself targeted by protests because of its past Nazi links, which included a former company chairman who in 1933 became Adolf Hitler's minister of economics. An outcry led to cancellation of a plan in 2008 for Allianz to have naming rights at the football stadium shared by the New York Giants and Jets football teams, and protesters earlier this year picketed at a South Florida golf tournament sponsored by Allianz.
More recently, Holocaust survivors have raised questions about Allianz's sponsorship of broadcast programs, including public radio's popular "A Prairie Home Companion." The show's producer, American Public Media, responded with an email telling the survivors to contact Allianz directly via telephone to discuss their concerns that the company was attempting to scrub its past for U.S. consumers.
For its part, Allianz officials said the company is not lobbying Congress on the insurance legislation, instead favoring negotiations on these issues between the U.S. and German governments and Jewish organizations.
"Allianz as a corporation is not playing an active role in this," spokeswoman Sabia Schwartzer said.
The company has repeatedly said that it acknowledges its forced collaboration with the Nazis and that it is willing to listen to anyone with a claim from the World War II era.
That is not the experience many Holocaust survivors have had.
"They shirk all responsibility," Schaecter said." They evade all the questions you ask. They don't intend to ever change."
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