WASHINGTON, D.C. - They endured horrifying physical, emotional and psychological torture at the hands of the Nazis and, for almost seven decades, Holocaust survivors have been further victimized and denied their rights — first, by insurance companies demanding policy documents and death certificates in order to make claims on Holocaust-era insurance policies and subsequently, by opaque bureaucracies and red tape. This must not be allowed to continue.
For the past three Congresses, my colleagues and I have introduced legislation to address the lingering injustices of the Holocaust by restoring the rights of Holocaust survivors. The latest version of the bill that I introduced with my fellow Floridian, Rep. Ted Deutch, passed the House Committee on Foreign Affairs with unanimous support. However, as Holocaust survivors come closer to having their grievances heard, the propaganda and misinformation campaign against legislative efforts to make them whole intensifies.
These are the facts:
At present, Holocaust survivors are barred from suing in federal court those insurance companies that have failed to pay out Holocaust-era policies. The Tom Lantos Justice for Holocaust Survivors Act (H.R. 890) would remove these restrictions and enable survivors to exercise the basic legal rights they are granted as U.S. citizens to bring their cases before a federal judge. The bill does not call for awarding any money nor does it prejudge the outcome of any case.
Opponents of this legislation argue that its passage would undermine successful mechanisms for compensating outstanding Holocaust-era insurance claims. The International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) was incorporated in Switzerland and headquartered in England, away from the scrutiny and accountability of U.S. law. Under ICHEIC, the insurance companies, which displayed an obvious conflict of interest, had the final say in verifying, accepting, and rejecting claims.
Further, ICHEIC stopped accepting new claims in 2004 and closed its doors in 2007. While touted as having paid out $300 million on 48,000 claims, ICHEIC paid only a fraction of what was owed to survivors and other heirs of Holocaust-era policies. There were estimated to be several hundred thousand unpaid Holocaust-era policies, with an estimated value of $20 billion. Moreover, 34,000 of the 48,000 claimants cited in the statistic above received a "humanitarian" award of $1,000, instead of compensation because of the acknowledged existence of a policy. Besides being worth far less than the policies themselves, these awards were perceived by survivors as an insulting dismissal of legitimate claims.
With the passage of H.R. 890, Holocaust survivors would be able to bring their claims before an unbiased judge with the subpoena powers and above-the-table accountability of the U.S. court system.
Claims by opponents of the bill that restoring survivors' rights to bring suit against insurance companies would violate U.S. government commitments to European countries are also false.
European insurers were never promised immunity from litigation. It was well understood that the ICHEIC process was voluntary and only binding on claimants who accepted an offer from the Commission. Further, from ICHEIC's closure in 2007 to 2011, post-ICHEIC mechanisms for addressing unpaid policies have covered only 18 out of hundreds of thousands of unpaid Holocaust-era insurance policies.
This is not about token payments or reparations for the Nazis' crimes. No amount of money can wipe the blood off the hands of those who enabled, collaborated with and benefitted from the Nazis' horrifying rule. All these survivors want is the opportunity to bring their cases before a federal judge, just as any other American would be able to do in a similar situation.
There is no remedy that can heal the wounds inflicted by the Nazi regime, but perpetuating the injustices created by these circumstances, and thereby allowing others to profit from them, is unacceptable and morally reprehensible. Justice for Holocaust survivors is long overdue. Let us act to restore their rights before more of these courageous victims of the Nazis' brutality pass away.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami is the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
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