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Miami Holocaust survivors urge Congress to let them sue European insurance companies

The president of the Holocaust Survivors of Miami-Dade County wants to allow survivors and their families to use the courts to get payouts from European insurance companies for policies that were upended by Nazi Germany.

And after years of advocacy from South Florida lawmakers, David Mermelstein might have the White House on his side.

Mermelstein was sent to Auschwitz when he was 16 years old and was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. After two years in a displaced persons camp, Mermelstein came to the United States in 1948, met his wife in New York, and then decided to stay in Miami for the rest of his life after honeymooning there.

Now, 75 years after leaving Auschwitz, the 90-year-old Mermelstein is pushing to get a law passed that gives Holocaust survivors the right to use the U.S. court system to compel private European insurance companies to look through their own records and pay out the money owed to survivors and their families, which could total up to $25 billion when factoring in compound interest over time.

“Without action by Congress, the insurance companies will be the heirs of the victims of the Holocaust,” Mermelstein said. “This is unacceptable.”

Mermelstein visited Washington on Tuesday to testify in favor of legislation previously sponsored by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and former Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson that allows Holocaust survivors to attempt to collect on unpaid insurance policies through the U.S. court system.

Even though the Trump administration has not supported such efforts in the past, the newly appointed special envoy for Holocaust issues in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs in the White House Cherrie Daniels, is examining the idea with fresh eyes, according to an official familiar with the matter.

Mermelstein’s drive to see the proposal become law starts with recollections of his childhood house in Czechoslovakia. It had a plaque on it indicating that it was insured by Generali, an Italian insurance company. Many families in Europe at the time took out expansive policies that covered much more than property damage or death, and in many cases the policies functioned as savings vehicles.

But Mermelstein lost everything in the Holocaust, including documentation of his family’s insurance policy. Instead, he received a $1,000 “humanitarian payment” from an international commission after the body could not find his father’s name on a policy.

“Survivors resent the idea of a humanitarian payment instead of the actual funds we know our parents set aside in case of trouble,” Mermelstein said.

He said the international commission that paid him and many others $1,000 was an ineffective body that should have forced insurance companies to find a way to ensure a proper payout.

Mermelstein was introduced by Republican Sen. Rick Scott and as Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and ranking member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., looked on.

South Florida lawmakers including Nelson, Rubio, Scott and former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have long supported legislation that green-lights court action against European insurance companies. But bills have failed to get traction amid concerns from some prominent Jewish groups that the effort could harm other unrelated Holocaust reparations efforts by the German government.

That could change this year.

While the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act didn’t win support from the White House when it was introduced in 2017 by Rubio and Nelson, the introduction of Daniels to the process may change that.

Daniels is expected to focus on the bill through the end of the year, at which point a new version will have been filed. The White House declined to comment on the matter without seeing a draft of the bill.

But one official noted the president’s support for the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act, signed into law in 2017, which requires the State Department report to Congress on the progress of European countries in compensating Holocaust survivors and their families.

“I’d be surprised if the president doesn’t reach a similar conclusion” on the insurance accountability legislation, the official added.

Graham, who as head of the Judiciary Committee would need to hold a hearing on the bill, also appeared open to legislation to address the matter when he said Tuesday the current system of insurance payouts to Holocaust survivors “is not working in my point of view.”

“If you believe there’s up to $25 billion in uncompensated claims owed and the current system has generated $700 million, then somebody needs to look at something else,” Graham said, referring to payouts made by insurance companies through the international commission.

A new version of the bill hasn’t been filed yet in the current Congress after the 2017 bill expired in January. But Sam Dubbin, a Miami-based attorney for the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA, said he expects one soon that is nearly identical to the previous legislation.

“Last year there was legislation by Nelson and Rubio and the Judiciary Committee was about to discharge it without a hearing,” Dubbin said. “All members of the committee except one agreed for it to be discharged. That was [former Sen. Orrin] Hatch and he’s gone. This year Senator Rubio, who is a strong believer in the survivors, said ‘let’s talk to Chairman Graham, let’s just make sure we cover all the bases.’ Graham believes in what the survivors are trying to do.”

Opponents of the bill, including prominent Jewish groups like the Anti Defamation League, B’nai B’rith and the World Jewish Congress, have argued that legislation permitting court action for unpaid insurance claims undermines existing reparations efforts they are negotiating between the German government and Holocaust survivors. But Dubbin argued that suing a private insurance company that didn’t pay out claims is different from allowing a private citizen to sue a foreign government.

“The idea that foreign policy by the executive branch can supersede a U.S. citizen’s right to go to court is unprecedented,” Dubbin said. “No treaty, no statute, no executive order says you can’t go to court.”

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