WASHINGTON — Remembering family members who were lost to the gas chambers of Nazi Germany, aging survivors of the Holocaust went before Congress on Thursday to ask for their day in court.
They want to force the handful of international insurers who sold life insurance policies to Jewish families before World War II to open their books on the hundreds of thousands of policyholders. They also want the opportunity to take those companies to court, describing futile paper chases to collect on the life insurance policies that their parents had maintained faithfully before Nazi troops ordered them out of their homes.
"It isn't asking for very much, really," said Israel Arbeiter, who survived four years of German concentration camps but whose parents and younger brother perished at the Treblinka camp. "There should be no legal peace for companies without moral peace for the survivors."
The legislation faces formidable opposition from the Bush administration and an array of influential Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress, which argue that congressional intervention would sever existing international agreements that have paved the way for thousands of Holocaust survivors and their heirs to be compensated.
The survivors have impassioned and bipartisan congressional backing. Two Florida lawmakers, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler, have introduced legislation that would require insurers to report the names of Holocaust-era insurance policyholders and would give their heirs and survivors the right to sue European insurers in U.S. courts. Though suits now can be filed, the U.S. government routinely asks that they be dismissed.
Ros-Lehtinen charged that the insurance companies have "sought unjust enrichment at the expense of the Holocaust victims" as she read a letter from a Palm Beach County woman, Elizabeth Lefkovits, who said she'd found her late father's life insurance policy after the war but had been unable to get her claim addressed.
Stuart Eizenstat, who was President Clinton's special representative on Holocaust-era issues, warned the House Committee on Financial Services that the legislation carries "potentially catastrophic consequences," including undermining the "good faith of the U.S. government" and "consigning Holocaust survivors to an endless and fruitless search for justice."
"The U.S. courts would not be so friendly a venue," Eizenstat said, suggesting that the committee stick with the process begun by a special Holocaust commission. "(Survivors) would be faced with statutes of limitation, rules of evidence and burdens of proof. ... Litigation would take time. Time that survivors on the whole do not have."
The United States in 2000 helped create a commission to resolve Jewish Holocaust-era insurance claims. The International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims finished processing claims in late 2006.
Eizenstat said the commission had paid $306 million to Holocaust victims before it completed its claims process. J. Christian Kennedy, special envoy for Holocaust issues at the State Department, said the insurance companies that had cooperated with the commission had voluntarily agreed to continue to process claims.
"We have found that dialogue and negotiation with companies and governments lead to faster and better results for survivors than litigation," Kennedy said.
But lawmakers criticized the commission and said the payout was only a fraction of the billions of dollars in outstanding policies.
"Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, and 13,000 have received compensation," Wexler said. "That's the process we're defending here?"
Wexler acknowledged that he's gotten phone calls from leaders of Jewish organizations, telling him, "Wexler, you're upsetting the apple cart."
A letter from B'nai B'rith International called the commission's work "imperfect" but said it not only had helped arrange the payment of claims against existing companies but also had paid claims against now-defunct companies and funded survivor-assistance programs. It "pledged to continue fielding new claims, so an important avenue remains open to survivors."
Members of the committee, however, said they weren't satisfied with the payouts.
"It's not what's paid, it's what owed," said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y. "This is not about anything other than greed. This is about denial."
Wexler estimates that the insurance companies are still holding 85 percent of the value of the policies.
"The question is, do we let it die and it's game over? Or does this Congress allow survivors one last chance?" he said.