Holocaust survivor groups say survivors should have a legal right to sue European insurers in the United States over disputes linked to Holocaust-era insurance policies.

Representatives of the groups testified Thursday at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on behalf of H.R. 1746, the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., would require insurers to disclosure information about Holocaust-era policies and allow for survivors to pursue claims in the U.S. federal courts.

“This legislation would restore the basic rights of survivors,” Israel Arbeiter, president of the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston, Newton, Mass., said at the hearing. “Is it too much for Holocaust survivors to have the right of access to American courts to sue insurance companies who cheated our families out of our insurance proceeds? … Is it too much to require insurance companies who want to do business in the United States to disgorge information about its customers and give a complete accounting of its conduct during and after the Holocaust? I don’t think it is asking for too much to have the same rights as any other American citizen to hold insurers accountable.”

The International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, Washington, or ICHEIC, managed the highest profile effort to resolve disputes involving Holocaust-era insurance policies.

ICHEIC, which declared its mission accomplished and closed its doors in 2007, “included not only the 5 largest European insurance companies, but it also brought into the ICHEIC process through additional agreements most of the insurance companies that issued life insurance policies to Nazi victims,” according to Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy, the State Department’s special envoy for Holocaust issues.

The State Department opposes H.R. 1746 “because it would undermine the current voluntary cooperation established by ICHEIC” and other agreements, Kennedy testified. “Indeed, the voluntary processing of claims, despite the recent closedown of ICHEIC, has continued. However, passage of this legislation would foment an adversarial relationship between claimants and insurance companies and could easily end such voluntary cooperation. In the end, the survivors and heirs would suffer because they would be left with only one recourse for resolving their claims – the filing of a lawsuit with all the risks and costs that would entail.”

Diane Koken, the former Pennsylvania insurance commissioner and former ICHEIC co-chair, also emphasized the cooperative nature of the commission’s work.

“The policy of negotiation has led to ICHEIC payments of $300 million on Holocaust-era insurance claims in this decade,” and about $200 million in humanitarian assistance for needy survivors, Koken said.

“The companies participating in or cooperating with ICHEIC have agreed that they will continue to review Holocaust-era claims voluntarily, despite the closure of ICHEIC in March 2007,” Koken said. “That is, even today, survivors and heirs can submit insurance claims directly to the companies. German insurers and many others involved in the ICHEIC process are committed to continuing to pay claims based on relaxed standards of proof.”

Arbeiter testified that he believes ICHEIC served the insurers more than it served the Nazis’ victims.

“Some say that we should accept what ICHEIC gave us because there was a deal to limit our rights to whatever ICHEIC decided,” Arbeiter said. “This is simply not acceptable, ladies and gentlemen. No survivor I know asked anyone else to make any deals about our insurance policies, and no survivor I know was asked if he or she agreed to any such deal.”

ICHEIC has not resolved a claim Arbeiter himself filed in connection with a life insurance policy held by his father, Arbeiter testified.

“I am entitled as a Holocaust survivor to any information that these companies have, or that any other company has relevant to our past,” Arbeiter said. “Now, there is no more time to deny me my history, nor the histories of the tens of thousands of families whose insurance information remained concealed in spite of ICHEIC.”

ICHEIC did give Arbeiter a check as a “humanitarian gesture,” but “the survivors are not seeking ‘humanitarian gestures,’ ” Arbeiter said. “ We are demanding simple justice. We are demanding that the insurance companies be required to make complete disclosures of their records. We are demanding to be able to speak and act for ourselves if we are not satisfied with the company’s conduct. We are demanding discovery under the supervision of an American court, not the protection given by the ICHEIC participants who agreed to allow the companies to keep everything secret.”