Thousands of aging Holocaust survivors in the US want Congress to clear a path for them to sue European insurance companies they contend illegally confiscated Jewish life insurance policies during the Nazi era and have refused to pay an estimated $20 billion still owed.
A hearing was scheduled Wednesday in the House Foreign Affairs Committee on a bill that would provide the survivors with access to US courts and also force companies such as Germany's Allianz SE and Italy's Assicurazioni Generali to disclose lists of policies held by Jews before World War II.
David Schaecter, who survived the Auschwitz death camp and now lives in Miami, was set to testify at the hearing. He described the current US policy barring survivors from suing the companies as unfair.
Schaecter, 82 and originally from Slovakia, is president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA.
"It's a shameful thing. We have been robbed of our dignity," Schaecter said in an interview. "We are survivors, and yet we are not allowed to sue a person or a company or an entity like every other person has a right to do."
Yet despite their highly sympathetic stories, the Holocaust survivors have run into stiff opposition not only from the German and US governments but also from major Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and B'nai B'rith International.
Peter Ammon, Germany's ambassador to the US, wrote Ros-Lehtinen that his government has paid billions of dollars to Holocaust survivors and other victims of the Third Reich.
He noted that the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims paid some $305 million, with another $200 million going into humanitarian programs for survivors.
'Time is running short'
When that commission was created in 1998, Ammon said insurers "were promised comprehensive and permanent legal peace in the United States."
"Voluntary agreements have the advantage of benefiting large numbers of survivors, not just the few who are successful in the courts," Ammon said.
The legislation's sponsor, US Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida represents many of the estimated 100,000 Holocaust survivors in the US and also chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. Although the bill has been around in various forms for at least five years, Ros-Lehtinen said she is hopeful it could pass this year. The measure has 51 co-sponsors in the House and a companion bill in the Senate.
"We can't tell these survivors to continue to wait. Their time is running short," she said. "The insurance companies have got the money. What they don't have is shame."
For its part, Allianz officials said the company is not lobbying Congress on the insurance legislation, instead favoring negotiations on these issues between the US and German governments and Jewish organizations.
"Allianz as a corporation is not playing an active role in this," spokeswoman Sabia Schwartzer said.