June 6, 2012
Holocaust insurance claims divide the Jewish community
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“The fundamental flaw was that it relied on individuals to place a claim,” he said. “The way that they should have done it was to force the insurance companies to divulge all unpaid claims and policies.
The California state law, meanwhile, was overturned by the Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote in 2003, giving Holocaust survivors no avenue to sue insurance companies in the United States.
Garmendi is now a U.S. congressman, and he’s one of 88 co-sponsors of H.R. 890, which still faces an uphill climb, especially in the Senate, where opposition from the State Department may carry a bit more weight.
“The State Department believes this intrudes on their turf,” Garamendi said.
In his memo to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the State Department’s Davidson wrote, “This bill would undermine commitments made by the United States in bilateral agreements, creating significant problems in our foreign relations.”
Jewish organizations—many of which sit on the board of the Claims Conference—take exactly the same stance.
“The Claims Conference wants to be negotiating with the Germans every year to expand the range of payments and to get additional compensation,” Chapman University’s Bazyler said. “Their fear is that the Germans will say, “Well, if a deal’s not a deal, what are we doing here?’ “
The survivors, meanwhile, just want what’s owed to them.
“If somebody stole my wallet 40 or 50 years ago, and they’re still sitting there with what they stole, then I as an individual have a right,” said Richard Weisberg, a lawyer currently involved in suing Hungarian railroads for Holocaust-related theft. “And although groups may play a part, it’s completely appropriate to look for a remedy as an individual.”
On one level, it is a simple argument over money: Both sides want it, and they want the law of the land to favor their right to get it. But the divide is also an ideological one. That is, how should genocide restitution—money that everyone agrees can’t even begin to make up for the harm caused by such unspeakable acts—be divided? Should it be distributed by Jewish organizations, based on need? Or should it be dispersed individually, in some cases by courts, based on merit, based on what was actually taken away?
Berenbaum of American Jewish University is inclined to side with the former, especially considering just how many Holocaust survivors are still living in poverty.
“I always thought that, although the claims were individual, the reason the claim -is being brought is the moral stature of the Holocaust itself,” he said. “And that’s a collective, non-individual thing.”
Renee Firestone doesn’t understand reasoning like this.
“We were on our own,” she said. “Each individual was a prisoner. I wasn’t even in a family. Not even a family was considered as a group. Everybody was on their own.”
The same argument could be held over the very nature of the Holocaust itself. Was it one abominable act? Or millions of crimes?
Answers to these questions don’t come easy.
“The Holocaust is an ongoing wound, and you can’t bring it to conclusion,” said Berenbaum. “The further away we are, the larger it looms.”