During World War II, the Mermelsteins were living in Czechoslovakia when the Nazis hauled them off to the infamous death camps. David Mermelstein, then a teenager, lost his entire family: parents, grandparents, four brothers and a sister.
But he couldn't collect on a life insurance policy held by an Italian company because he couldn't meet its demand for proof of his father's death.
Decades later, the Miami-Dade Holocaust survivor and hundreds of others in his same predicament are struggling to recover payouts from Assicurazioni Generali of Italy and other large European insurers.
They can't sue them, however, because a formidable foe is now standing in the way: the U.S. government.
"They took away our rights to go to an American court," said Mermelstein, 81, of Kendall, who came to this country in 1947 after he was held at Auschwitz and other concentration camps during the war.
"Can you tell me why the Justice Department would fight us instead of an Italian insurance company?" he said. "It's unbelievable."
Prospects for justice are growing dimmer. On Monday, Mermelstein and other victims of Nazi concentration camps will be awaiting a possible decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider their appeal against Assicurazioni Generali. It's their last shot at justice because the court this fall had refused to hear their petition that would allow them to sue the Italian insurer and other European companies.
Meanwhile, federal legislation that would give them that legal right has gone nowhere in Congress, stalled by millions of dollars of insurance industry lobbying and competing political agendas pushed by lawmakers, the Obama administration and even establishment Jewish organizations.
The legal battle raged further this fall after Mermelstein, using the Freedom of Information Act, obtained internal Justice Department documents revealing the U.S. government's past misgivings about its strategy opposing victims' access to the courts.
The records show the Clinton administration was not opposed to their filing lawsuits in state courts as an alternative to an international Holocaust insurance commission, which was set up in 1998. That fact was concealed by the Justice Department during the past decade of litigation.
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