WASHINGTON — Few survived to tell the heart-rending survival story that Leo Bretholz chronicled in his book, "Leap Into Darkness," an account of his daring escape in 1942 from a French train bound for the Auschwitz concentration camp.
"Of the 1,000 people with me on SNCF convoy No. 42, only five survived the war," the 90-year-old Baltimore man told a congressional panel Wednesday morning. "If I had not jumped from that train, I wouldn't be here today before you. It is my duty to speak for those who did not survive, such as the old woman on the train who pushed us to escape."
Bretholz appealed to Congress on Wednesday, seeking passage of the Holocaust Rail Justice Act, which would open the French rail firm SNCF to U.S. lawsuits from an estimated 75,000 Jews and other victims transported by the company’s trains to World War II concentration camps.
Other Holocaust survivors who appeared before the panel are seeking the ability to sue European companies such as German insurance giant Allianz AG in state courts for unpaid life insurance policies sold before World War II. Hundreds of survivors — perhaps thousands — in Florida and other parts of the country have been denied access to courts because the federal government has said that the claims system under an international Holocaust commission is the only way for these survivors to be compensated for their losses.
"It pains me to say that survivors of one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century continue to feel the pain of the Nazis' brutality and oppression," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the lead sponsor of the insurance legislation.
She cited cases where survivors made claims on insurance policies belonging to relatives killed by the Nazis, only to be told that their claim could not be honored without a death certificate.
"Can you imagine anything more outrageous than asking for a death certificate for someone murdered in Auschwitz?" Ros-Lehtinen said.
As Holocaust survivors age, though, their numbers are dwindling and time is running out, said Miami's David Schaecter, 82, a docent at the Holocaust Memorial on Miami Beach and president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA.
"So many of them are destitute to this day," he said.
Regardless of age, though, the Holocaust victims seeking the legislation haven't let that stand in the way of their activism. Earlier this year they protested a golf tournament in Boca Raton sponsored by Allianz. Schaecter has led efforts to bring to light the company's sponsorship of programs on American Public Media, including the radio show "A Prairie Home Companion." Their objections also have raised questions about SNCF's pursuit of a high-speed rail contract in California.
But Schaecter's survivors group is at odds with some large national Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B'nai B'rith and the World Jewish Congress.
The large Jewish groups argued at a 2010 congressional hearing that the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims was created to address worldwide claims, and that re-engaging in court could unrealistically raise the expectations of survivors. It also could cause diplomatic problems and snag ongoing efforts to obtain humanitarian funds for some of the most needy survivors, they told the committee.
Yet the bills continue to be heard in Congress.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., this spring filed his own bill in the face of the possibility of protests by Holocaust survivors at a Miami Beach fundraiser in March with President Barack Obama. Nelson had been working on the legislation sought by a national Holocaust survivors' group since early February, but the possibility of a demonstration by survivors prodded him to file the legislation.
He has as co-sponsors Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and the two Democratic senators from California, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
The White House had no comment Wednesday on the proposed legislation. The State Department opposes the bill and told the committee in a statement submitted for the hearing that many of the survivors who believe they've not been properly compensated would "face great difficulty" with their claims.
That's why the U.S. government supported in 1998 the creation of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, the State Department said. In all, the commission paid about $300 million to 48,000 claimants, the State Department's Douglas Davidson said in a memo.
The State Department believes the bill would "set back, rather than advance, the cause of bringing justice to Holocaust survivors and other victims of the Nazi era, as well as their heirs, a cause for which the United States has been in the forefront for the past 60 years," said Davidson, who is special envoy for Holocaust issues.
But it's not merely an issue of justice, said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., one of the bill's co-sponsors and a former California insurance commissioner. For the survivors it's about getting their day in court and holding insurance companies accountable for policies they wrote and failed to honor.
"The insurance companies entered into a contract," Garamendi said. "They must honor that contract."
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