Who should represent Holocaust survivors claims: Jewish organizations must stop interfering

Menachem Rosensaft’s op-ed gratuitously offers an “alternative” to the legislation that Holocaust survivors and children and grandchildren of survivors are seeking in Congress. The bills he patronizingly calls “well-intentioned” are necessary to restore our rights to go to court to recover insurance policies sold by Allianz, Generali, AXA and other global insurers to our parents and grandparents, which the companies dishonored after the Holocaust.

We don’t know whom Mr. Rosensaft claims to represent in making this suggestion, but he most certainly is not speaking for Holocaust survivors or the families of Holocaust victims. We can speak and act for ourselves, and we demand the right to do so. This is something that more than 100 members of Congress, who are co-sponsoring HR 890 and S. 466 on a bipartisan basis, understand.

Let’s remember what this problem is all about: insurance policies — private contracts that our parents and grandparents paid for with the sweat of their brows, contracts that promised to pay our parents and grandparents if something happened. And needless to say, our families did lose everything. The companies profited from our families’ misery, and no one, certainly not the World Jewish Congress or the Claims Conference, or any other of the groups now fighting us, lifted a finger to demand that the insurers make good on these legal contracts, until states including Florida, California and New York took action in 1997-1998. In the current legislation, survivors are demanding the same rights as every other American citizen to recover our family legacies.

Other than the companies’ disgraceful conduct after the war, Rosensaft’s history is almost entirely inaccurate. It was not until the California, Florida and New York legislatures passed laws to hold the companies accountable that the insurance companies came up with the idea to create a “voluntary” commission to publish names and pay claims. Everyone understood that this “international commission,” called ICHEIC, was indeed voluntary unless a claimant accepted an offer for a policy.

When Rosensaft states that insurers “were given assurances, backed by both the     Clinton and Bush administrations, that their participation in ICHEIC would insulate them from civil suits in U.S. courts,” he simply is wrong. It is well established in the public record that the U.S. government never promised the companies immunity from litigation for participating in ICHEIC.

When ICHEIC closed in 2007, economist Sidney Zabludoff, who conducted the market study for ICHEIC, reported that the body paid only 3 percent of the amount owed by the insurance companies to Jewish families from before the Holocaust. It paid $250 million on 14,000 policies. Although ICHEIC also paid out $34 million in $1,000 checks to 34,000 applicants, these “humanitarian” payments were considered patronizing rejections by survivors. It is just wrong for Rosensaft to say that 48,000 survivors or family members were paid on their policies through ICHEIC.

What is most outrageous is that Rosensaft continues to justify a system that would deny Holocaust survivors our fundamental legal rights to go to U.S. courts to recover our contracts, a system that has allowed thousands of Holocaust survivors to die waiting for justice.

We also can do without Rosensaft’s patronizing reference to lawyers. I was one of the named plaintiffs in the Hungarian “Gold Train” case. When the U.S. government published the story about the way the U.S. Army took much of the Hungarians’ property from the Gold Train and used it for themselves, nothing happened. The government didn’t follow up, and neither did the Claims Conference, the World Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League or anyone else.

That is why we contacted our lawyer, and it was the three law firms that invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money, and five years of their work, working closely with us survivors throughout the case, that brought about that settlement. The Hungarian Gold Train settlement provided more than $22 million for thousands of Hungarian survivors all over the world who are in need. It produced desperately needed assistance that the government and the Jewish community were not providing.

Why shouldn’t Holocaust survivors have the same rights as every other American? If it is to protect us from “false hope,” Rosensaft can spare us his paternalistic nonsense and mind his own business. We survived Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buchenwald, death marches and killing fields. We can make up our own minds. HR 890 and S. 466 are supported by the overwhelming majority of survivors and members of the second generation.

David Mermelstein is an Auschwitz survivor and the vice president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA. A longer version of this op-ed appeared at JointMedia News Service.