A bill that would permit Holocaust survivors to sue over Holocaust-era insurance policies was discussed Tuesday at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who chaired the hearing, said the hearing was the first the committee has held that has focused on Holocaust insurance issues.
“While no amount of financial compensation or property restitution can ever make up for the indescribable wrong of the Holocaust, we all are committed to doing what we can to assist these survivors to obtain meaningful compensation due to them for the assets that they lost during the war and around the period prior to the war, and to have that compensation come to them without delay,” Nelson said.
Many Holocaust-era claims were resolved through the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.
ICHEIC shut down in 2007 after paying out more than $300 million in claims to 48,000 survivors.
Some survivors have criticized ICHEIC.
Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Robert Wexler, D-Fla., introduced H.R. 1746, which would allow survivors to bring their cases to federal court and require insurance companies in the U.S. that wrote policies in Europe in the years before and during World War II to make the names of the Holocaust-era policyholders available for publication by the National Archives.
H.R. 1746 was approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in October 2007 and now is awaiting action by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the House Financial services Committee.
Jack Rubin a Holocaust survivor and member of the advisory committee for the Holocaust Survivors of West Palm Beach, Boynton Beach, Fla., testified in favor of the bill.
Rubin reported that ICHEIC rejected his claim over what ICHEIC said was a lack of evidence.
Rubin said his father had bought insurance with Generali Moldavia through an agent that was also killed during the Holocaust, but that the insurer said it had no knowledge of either the policy or the agent when Rubin filed a claim.
“This is absurd, because I know we had insurance,” Rubin said. “Don’t you think Generali, which even then was a global giant, would have kept information about its insurance agents, and about its subsidiaries? That’s what big insurance companies do.”
Rubin criticized ICHEIC as being “controlled by the insurance company” and operating behind closed doors.
Samuel Dubbin, a Miami lawyer, echoed that criticism.
“The insurers profited outrageously from the Holocaust and turned their backs on those who trusted the companies’ supposed integrity,” Dubbin testified. “But this law is also about the truth. And the current system, the status quo represented by the ICHEIC legacy, has permitted the companies to hide behind the secrecy of an unregulated and extra-legal process, chartered in Switzerland and headquartered in London, and make decisions about Holocaust survivors’ rights with no governmental or judicial oversight.”
Critics of the proposed Holocaust-era insurance lawsuit bill said it could undermine efforts to resolve Holocaust-era claims.
“My apprehension regarding H.R. 1746 is that it will not achieve its goal of providing an effective avenue to successfully compensate Holocaust victims and their heirs for unpaid insurance policies,” said Roman Kent, a Holocaust survivor and chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, New York.
Although some survivors may benefit from the bill, its enactment would unduly raise the hopes of many others “that, in the end, will not be met, which will have a profoundly negative impact on survivors,” Kent said.
Stuart Eizenstat, a Washington lawyer and former special representative of the president and secretary of state on Holocaust issues, agreed that opening the court doors to survivors would not necessarily provide them with a reasonable chance for obtaining restitution.
“Litigants would be faced with statutes of limitation, jurisdictional arguments, rules of evidence, and burdens of proof,” Eizenstat said, adding that these cases would involve “considerable costs” that may only be recovered if the claimant wins in both the trial and an appeal.
“Such a cause of action would likely raise the hopes of survivors without offering them a real chance at additional recovery,” Eizenstat said. “But most importantly, litigation would take time — time that survivors on the whole do not have.”
Eizenstat said the bill was also flawed in that it was “at odds” with U.S. policy regarding Holocaust claims, which he noted was based on negotiation.
“It imposes the probability of litigation on companies that have cooperated fully with the United States Government and in the ICHEIC process and that have paid tens of millions of dollars in an effort to satisfy their obligations,” he said.
Thane Rosenbaum a law professor at the Fordham University law school said lawmakers should consider whether the president has a right to value foreign relations more than the rights of citizens.
“The powers of the Executive Branch to conduct foreign policy surely cannot be expanded to allow the suppression of facts in the hands of foreign corporations that collaborated with the Nazis and defrauded its customers,” Rosenbaum said.