When it comes to compensation, Holocaust survivors do not walk in lockstep.
We all want to receive what we are owed, but there are right ways and wrong ways to seek amends.
The bill currently being considered in the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee — the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act, also known as HR 1746 — is the wrong way.
If passed, the bill, which was co-sponsored by the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), would require insurance companies to disclose their Holocaust-era records. It also would allow survivors and their families to sue the companies.
Proponents believe the proposed legislation would help Holocaust survivors. However, as a Holocaust survivor who has been involved in negotiations for compensation for about 20 years, I oppose the bill. I believe that its passage will harm the overall interests of indigent Holocaust survivors worldwide.
The estimated 235,000 poor survivors in the world are in desperate need of food, medical attention and home care. The money necessary to provide assistance for these survivors has been most difficult to obtain. To help address this matter and to collect money for unpaid insurance policies, the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) was formed.
For more than 50 years after World War II, the insurance companies in question were resistant to survivor claims. Meanwhile, the courts, with their evidentiary burdens and other legal obstacles, did not prove to be welcoming forums for recovering the proceeds of these policies. Survivors had virtually nowhere to go to collect the proceeds of unpaid policies.
The commission was set up in 1998 to fill that void. Chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, the ICHEIC was the result of an international agreement involving Jewish organizations, five large European insurance companies, the State of Israel and U.S. insurance regulators. It also received the imprimatur of the U.S. government. In addition, through negotiations with the German government, German insurance companies also became part of the ICHEIC process.
The commission provided a forum — at no cost to survivors and without regard to statutes of limitations — to identify, process and compensate the previously unpaid claims based on Holocaust-era insurance policies purchased by Jews. The ICHEIC had to gain the cooperation of insurance companies averse to paying claims — quite a difficult task, especially when policy documents had long since been destroyed or lost, meaning that there was no proper documentation for so many victims. In addition, the commission had to deal with the stringent European data protection laws of the countries in which the companies were located.
Even with all of these difficulties, the ICHEIC paid out more than $300 million in insurance claims. In addition, the commission directed that the remaining insurance funds in its possession, approximately $200 million, be used for humanitarian purposes to provide social service assistance to survivors worldwide. The ICHEIC also developed an archive open to all of the more than half a million likely Jewish insurance policyholders. The archive enabled survivors and their families to submit claims to the ICHEIC.
If H.R. 1746 passes, the German government will view
the resulting litigation as a violation of the commitments that led to the formation of the commission, and byextension other existing compensation agreements.
These agreements have led to hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits for survivors worldwide. The passage of H.R. 1746, thus, will damage ongoing and future negotiations that have tens of millions of dollars at stake for the benefit of survivors worldwide.
Moreover, the companies that participated in the ICHEIC have committed to continue processing claims they received after the close of the commission process. A mechanism to monitor such claims is being developed.
The current House bill mandates that all insurance companies disclose the names of all their policyholders. This effort, in light of the archive established by the ICHEIC and the Holocaust-era policies that have been paid, will yield little new information regarding Jewish policyholders. The costs, effort and time required for elderly survivors to engage in litigation against insurers will be excessive, if not prohibitive.
While a very small number of survivors might benefit from H.R. 1746, its enactment will generate huge expectations that, in the end, will lead to profound disappointment.
Survivors would be much better served if efforts were focused on the failure of companies and countries that were not part of the ICHEIC process to address the issues of Holocaust-era insurance and other property.
For an opposing op-ed on H.R. 1746, read Lani Silver and David Schaecter’s piece “Tell Congress to tell the insurers to pay up” at www.jewishsf.com.
Roman Kent is the treasurer of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. He lives in New York.