Fla. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen tees off on PGA, German insurer Allianz

The Miami HeraldFebruary 2, 2012 

A Miami congresswoman is again taking aim at a German insurer that is sponsoring a pro golf tournament in Boca Raton, urging the PGA to drop Allianz because it has refused to pay billions in life insurance claims to Holocaust survivors.

In a batch of letters, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen took the PGA Tour’s brass to task for joining forces with Allianz, among the world’s largest insurance companies with a huge presence in the United States. The Republican lawmaker accused Allianz of refusing to pay the debts of thousands of Jews murdered in Nazi death camps, even while the company spends heavily on advertising events such as the PGA Champions Tour tournament starting Monday.

Last week, she chided PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, writing that “doing business with Allianz effectively pardons their shameful behavior and ties your organization to their appalling treatment of Holocaust survivors.”

PGA Tour officials said they are aware of the controversy but they will keep Allianz as a sponsor. They said the event donates profits to local charities.

“We are working very hard to create the best event possible so we and our sponsors can continue to bring benefits like these to the Boca Raton area,” PGA officials said in a statement to The Miami Herald.The lawmaker’s letter-writing campaign is designed to shame Allianz and those who associate with the Munich-based company. It follows her similar offensive last year to put pressure on National Public Radio stations, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion and the cable television network CNBC to stop airing the company’s sponsorships and advertising.

Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, has taken a vocal stand as she pushes legislation through Congress that would allow potentially thousands of Holocaust-era policyholders in South Florida and elsewhere to sue Allianz and other European insurers in U.S. courts for unpaid life insurance policies.

Her legislation has encountered opposition from the Obama administration, European insurers and even some major Jewish organizations, which have backed an international Holocaust claims commission and other vehicles to resolve disputes with survivors. But her bill has gained momentum over the past year, drawing the support of more than 70 colleagues in the House and four others in the Senate, including Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio.

At the same time, a South Florida group of Holocaust survivors plans to hold a protest Thursday at Boca Raton City Hall to call attention to Mayor Susan Welchel’s support of the Allianz Championship at Broken Sound Club in Boca Raton. The Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation-USA also plans an even bigger protest of the PGA Champions Tour event on Monday.

David Schaecter, an Auschwitz survivor and Miami Lakes businessman who is president of the foundation, said he won’t stop standing up to Allianz. He said there are 100,000-plus survivors in the United States, with more than one-third living in poverty.

“This anguish is so difficult to shake,” Schaecter said, describing the dehumanizing experience of the Holocaust on survivors to this day. “We have been cheated. We have been deprived. We have been robbed of our dignity.”

Allianz, which has 10,000 employees in the United States, acknowledges the survivors’ profound suffering. The company has openly admitted its collaboration with the Nazis, noting a “groundbreaking” book was published in 2001 on its dark history. Among the disclosures: Allianz sold hundreds of thousands of life insurance policies to Jews during the 1930s and ‘40s, while insuring the death camps during World War II. The company also sent money to the Nazis instead of rightful Jewish beneficiaries.

“While we cannot undo any aspect of our company’s history, we can learn from it and work to make sure the horrors of the Holocaust are never again repeated,” Allianz spokeswoman Sabia Schwarzer said in a statement.

But she also insisted that Allianz of America, which includes Fireman’s Fund and PIMCO, has the right to advertise its insurance and investment services.

Schwarzer said the German insurer met its obligation to the vast majority of Holocaust survivors with unpaid policies through the International Commission on Holocaust Insurance Claims. It was supported by the U.S. and European governments, as well as major Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Congress. They now oppose Ros-Lehtinen’s legislation.

The international commission’s work, completed in 2007, has been described as “imperfect justice” by some who participated in the effort. But to South Florida Holocaust survivors and others around the country, the commission’s work amounts to a “sham,” which is why they are seeking the right to sue Allianz and others with the help of Congress.

Miami attorney Samuel Dubbin, who represents the South Florida survivors’ group, said the commission only obtained payouts of $250 million for about 14,000 claimants, or less than 3 percent of all outstanding Holocaust-era life insurance claims. The commission also issued 34,000 humanitarian payments of $1,000 each.

Experts such as Sidney Zabludoff, a retired U.S. government economist who later worked for a Jewish claims restitution group, estimated that Allianz, the Italian insurer Assicurazioni Generali and other companies sold a total of 879,000 life insurance policies to Eastern European Jews that have a present value of about $20 billion.

Allianz, with annual operating profits of $8 billion, has struggled with its image in the United States because of its history of aiding the Nazis during World War II.

The Foundation’s Schaecter said the company’s role in the Holocaust should not be forgotten — nor should Allianz be so easily forgiven for its huge debt to survivors.

“If we are given back our dignity and we are allowed to go to court and sue, it doesn’t mean we’re going to win all these lawsuits,” he said. “But at least we will have the right to make the world hear us.”

The Palm Beach Post contributed to this report.

To read more, visit www.miamiherald.com.

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