Hearing this week is latest attempt to allow survivors to press claims in state court; French rail case testimony also heard.
After years of getting the runaround from the German insurance giant Allianz, Herbert Karliner recently learned why he had been unable to collect on his father’s life insurance: the company claims his father cashed in the policy on Nov. 9, 1938 — the day of Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom against Jews.
On that day, Karliner said, his “father’s store was burned down and he was taken from our home to Buchenwald,” a Nazi concentration camp.
“Though I was a small child, this is something you cannot forget,” he said. “I seriously doubt that my father stopped by the Allianz office on his way to Buchenwald to cash in his life insurance policy.”
Karliner, 85, of Miami Beach, in prepared remarks submitted Wednesday at a hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said he now wants to sue Allianz to collect on the policy, which he valued at more than $180,000. But he told the committee that U.S. courts have refused to hear any Holocaust-era insurance claims at the request of the State Department, which insists that non-judicial remedies are available.
As a result, the committee is now considering a bill that would allow survivors to press their claims for an estimated $20 billion in state courts, and to compel European insurance companies that do business in those states to disclose their Holocaust-era insurance policies. Although the bill has been introduced repeatedly over the last five years, its House sponsor, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), expressed hope it will pass this year.
“These survivors deserve the opportunity to have their day in court and present evidence against these companies that have failed to honor their business obligations,” she said. “We cannot allow these companies to continue to profit from the horrors of the Holocaust.”
The committee also heard testimony regarding a second bill that would prevent the French rail company SNCF from claiming a defense of sovereign immunity to avoid answering a class-action lawsuit by Holocaust survivors. They claim SNCF operated trains for profit that transported more than 76,000 innocent Jews to Nazi death camps.
One of those survivors, Leo Bretholz, 90, of Baltimore, testified that he was one of 1,000 Jews on a SNCF train bound for Auschwitz on Nov. 6, 1942, when he and a friend managed to pry apart the window bars and jump. Only five Jews aboard that train survived the war, he said.
“SNCF willingly collaborated with the Nazis,” Bretholz said. “Here I have in my hand a copy of an invoice sent by SNCF seeking to be paid for the services they provided. They pursued payment on this bill after the liberation of Paris, after the Nazis were gone. This was not coercion; this was business.”
“In the almost 70 years since the end of the war, SNCF has paid no reparations nor been held accountable,” he added. “The company did not even publicly apologize for its role until last year, when SNCF was criticized for pursuing a high-speed rail line in the United States without fully accounting for its role in the Holocaust.”
The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan/ Queens), told the committee she found it “unconscionable that SNCF has successfully evaded responsibility by arguing in the U.S. that it is an instrumentality of the French government and thus entitled to sovereign immunity, while at the same time arguing in France it was performing a private function and not a government function. …
“SNCF operated the trains as a commercial venture and was paid per head, per kilometer to deliver thousands to their ultimate deaths. … SNCF has never once denied its actions, but has simply contended that it can’t be held responsible or accountable. Many of these survivors don’t have much time left. Regrettably, it appears SNCF’s deliberate strategy is to run out the clock on these survivors.”
Although Maloney said she first introduced this bill in 2003, she said she is now “very optimistic” it will be passed and signed into law.
Supporting the two bills is the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, which said in a statement that it supports “the right of all survivors to pursue all legitimate claims, including insurance claims, in every appropriate forum, in particular the courts of law.”
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the committee, said that although he is aware of opposition to the bill, he believed their “legitimate concerns are outweighed by the very real and immediate need to help survivors.”
Among those opposing the insurance legislation, however, are six major Jewish organizations and the U.S. State Department. In a statement submitted to the committee, the six groups said the legislation would “raise false expectations for survivors,” “compromise the ability of the United States to advocate for survivor benefits and issues” and “potentially hinder ongoing negotiations which have provided crucial funding for Holocaust survivors indeed.”
They pointed out that the European insurance companies cooperated in 1999 in the creation of the International Commission on Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC). By the time it completed its work in 2007, it had paid $300 million to survivors and their heirs, plus $200 million for assistance programs, including homecare for survivors, the six groups said in a joint statement submitted to the committee.
The six — the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the World Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Restitution Organization — said the insurance companies agreed to cooperate with ICHEIC in return for a “promise of legal peace.”
“As a result, hundreds of thousands of victims of the Holocaust has been helped to live with some measure of improved comfort, care and dignity as they age,” they said.
But Renee Firestone, 87, of Beverly Hills, Calif., said in her testimony that Justice Department documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act prove the government never promised the insurance companies “legal immunity.”
She said that although ICHEIC “takes credit for having paid 48,000 claims,” 34,000 claimants were paid only $1,000 after their claims could not be substantiated. ICHEIC called those payments “humanitarian in nature, but survivors considered [them] insulting rejections.”
“In its first five years, ICHEIC spent more money on administrative expenses than it paid in claims,” she said, adding that it paid fewer than 14,000 of the 800,000 life/annuity/endowment policies estimated to have been owned by European Jews in 1938.
“The total paid on policies was $250 million, less than 3 percent of the $18 billion in outstanding values at the time,” Firestone pointed out. “Today, that unpaid amount of Holocaust-era insurance polices exceeds $20 billion.”
She told the committee that the claim for her father’s insurance policy was rejected because the companies said they had no record of his policy. But she said her first cousin sued and collected from the Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali for his mother’s policy after he found some of her insurance records.
“My father had a very close relationship with his sister,” Firestone said. “There is no way that my aunt had insurance and my father did not. My father was the adviser to the whole family. Why would he advise others to get insurance and not get it for himself and his family?”
“ICHEIC was chartered under Swiss law and headquartered in London to avoid American public laws and court subpoenas,” she added. “It was funded by the insurance companies themselves, its meetings were conducted in secret, and minutes were not even published of the secret meetings. Almost all survivors were frustrated and insulted by their ICHEIC experiences.”
The U.S. State Department issued a “fact sheet” last week saying that even though ICHEIC ended its work, survivors and their families may still pursue their insurance claims with the New York State Holocaust Claims Processing Office.
A spokesman for the office told The Jewish Week in June that before ICHEIC was created, it had been instrumental in getting nearly $19,000 in insurance claims for two relatives of Nazi victims.
Since its closure in March 2007, he said the office has handled more than 100 other insurance claims that normally took between six weeks and six months to process. About 30 were deemed viable and submitted to the insurance companies.
The spokesman said in an e-mail that his office does not simply pass along the claims but rather carries out “extensive research in European archives searching for postwar compensation records and wartime records that provide details about an individual’s wartime experiences as well as prewar asset holding (tax records, immigration records, Gestapo files, asset declarations, camp internment records, etc.). In addition, as many claimants also lack vital records, we undertake genealogical research. This is done at no cost to the claimant.
“Over the years HCPO has developed strong working relationships with numerous archives in Western and Central Europe. Unfortunately, it remains exceedingly difficult to obtain documentation from Eastern European countries such as Poland and Romania, as well as Baltic countries such as Latvia and Lithuania. ICHEIC did hire independent researchers to search archives in those countries for insurance-related documentation ….”
“Since ICHEIC closed,” the spokesman added, “thousands have been paid to Holocaust survivors, though not necessarily with the aid of our office. Many claimants went directly to the companies.”
According to a website that keeps track of all post-ICHEIC payments by German insurance companies, $224,903.73 in claims was paid to 18 claimants; another 47 claims were rejected because they had already been paid.
“From our experience, most claimants cannot name the company from whom their relative purchased the policy, therefore they cannot identify the company to sue or may identify the wrong company,” the spokesman said in an e-mail interview. “And so until a precise company is named as the defendant and other legal hurdles are passed (such as statute of limitations, jurisdiction, etc.) it could take years (if ever) before a case reached the discovery phase.
Moreover, it should be noted that the companies in question were all subject to independent audits by third-parties and so a search of company records has already been done.”
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