December 7, 2011
Opinion: Ending the injustice: Making Holocaust survivors whole
Sixty-six years ago, when the Allied forces dismantled Hitler’s Nazi regime, the world swore never to forget the horrors of the Holocaust and the millions of lives lost. Yet, to this day, many Holocaust survivors continue to suffer grave injustices from that grim period in history — this time, at the hands of insurance companies. It is time to make these survivors whole again.
Prior to the Holocaust, many Europeans purchased insurance policies to provide themselves and their families with a means of protection against the growing Nazi regime. Following Hitler’s defeat, many survivors approached the insurance companies to redeem their policies and were shocked to discover that the companies would not honor their claims. Without original certification of the policies’ existence or other documentation such as death certificates, the companies refused to pay out the policies.
These requirements were ludicrous, given the circumstances: No death certificates were issued for those murdered in gas chambers and killed in concentration camps. Further, insurance documentation would almost certainly have been lost, confiscated or destroyed when a family was deported to the death camps. In many cases, the insurance companies possessed the only proof of a policy’s existence and refused to provide information to the policyholders or their families.
In 1998, the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) was established to resolve these claims. Participation in ICHEIC was voluntary, meaning that while some companies chose to participate, many others did not. The ICHEIC process itself had a remarkably high percentage of claims rejection (approximately 84 percent), often due to the same limitations in documentation that prevented claims from being honored previously. Companies were never forced to make an adequate disclosure of policy ownership, leaving potential claimants unaware of funds they could be owed. When the ICHEIC process ended in 2007, many Holocaust survivors were outraged that their claims were dismissed.
Today, a tremendous number of survivors in the United States live below the poverty line and increasingly face the medical challenges of old age without the means to afford health care. I [Ros-Lehtinen] have the honor of representing one of the largest communities of Holocaust survivors in the country. These extraordinary individuals, having endured the horrors of the Holocaust, came to the United States to escape the injustice and brutal discrimination they faced in Europe. We will not allow Holocaust survivors to fall victim to companies that seek to profit from the Nazis’ atrocities.
The Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act — co-authored [by Ros-Lehtinen] with U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) — addresses these pressing issues. This bipartisan legislation would allow survivors to avail themselves of state laws that were passed to allow them their day in court and to require European insurance companies conducting business in those states to disclose Nazi-era insurance policy information. This measure does not award any money; it simply affirms survivors’ rights to bring the issue before a federal judge, a right that is guaranteed to all American citizens. The late Tom Lantos, former chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress, co-sponsored a version of this legislation in a previous Congress, for he understood this was an important means of making survivors whole.
For almost seven decades, the United States has led the charge to restore justice and dignity to Holocaust survivors. As long as European insurance companies continue to take advantage of the vulnerability of Nazi victims, injustice is perpetuated and the scars of the Holocaust grow deeper. We have the opportunity to right these wrongs and enable survivors to recover the funds they are owed; however, our window grows smaller every day. United States law will protect the victims of the Holocaust, not those who seek to gain from the Nazis’ cruelty.