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Holocaust insurance bill passes committee

A U.S. congressional committee approved legislation to open European Holocaust-era insurance records.

The Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act of 2007, passed Tuesday by the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, would require insurance companies that do business with the United States to disclose the names of all Holocaust-era policyholders, create a registry of those lists for survivors and require the secretary of state to work with European countries to make information on the policies available.

It also would allow survivors to bring claims against insurance companies in U.S. courts.

The bill was sharply critical of the work of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.

“The commission ended its work earlier this year leaving thousands of Holocaust victims no recourse to pursue legitimate insurance claims and failing to compel insurance companies to publicly disclose the identities of tens of thousands of policyholders from this dark chapter in Europe’s history,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (D-Fla.), the ranking Republican on the committee. “This legislation offers an important opportunity to bring long-awaited justice and closure to Holocaust survivors and their families.”

The bill was sponsored by Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who estimate that only 5 percent of such claims have been paid.

The bill drew sharp criticism from the German embassy in Washington and former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who headed the original International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.

Eagleburger expressed outrage that Wexler failed to ask ICHEIC to send a representative to testify at an earlier hearing. He noted that findings by outside bodies comported with ICHEIC’s final payout, which distributed over $305 million to some 48,000 claimants – out of over 91,000 applicants – by the time claims closed last December.

ICHEIC defenders say the legislation threatens to dampen any future cooperation with such commissions because it robs agreements of their finality. They also say the existing process cut out hefty lawyer fees, leaving more for claimants.

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