Op-Ed: U.S. Congress must act to help Holocaust survivors

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Although more than 60 years have passed since the world witnessed the atrocities committed by Hitler’s regime, many Holocaust-era compensation issues remain unresolved. One of these issues includes the continued failure of insurance companies to pay Holocaust survivors or families of victims for policies purchased before or during World War II. This is one of the enduring injustices of the Holocaust.

For more than 60 years, many European insurance companies have unfairly denied claims, arguing that Holocaust survivors and their families lack documentation — such as death certificates — needed to prove policy ownership. But such requirements are unfair and even disgraceful considering that the concentration camps in which many of the Holocaust victims perished did not issue death certificates, and that many of the assets and documents owned by the victims were confiscated by the Nazi regime.

In fact, in many cases, the only surviving records of such policies are in the vaults of the insurance companies, many of which shamefully refuse to disclose the names of Holocaust-era policyholders.

To address the problem of settling Nazi-era insurance claims, the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims was established in 1998. Some European insurance companies agreed to participate in the ICHEIC process, but their participation was voluntary and lacked the necessary enforcement mechanisms. The ICHEIC process ended in 2007 after producing payments for only a small fraction of the value of Nazi-era insurance policies. Insurance companies were never forced to make adequate disclosure of policy ownership information, and potential claimants remain in the dark about whether they have a claim.

The failure of the insurance companies to settle Nazi-era insurance claims is particularly disturbing given that many Holocaust survivors in the United States live below the poverty line and lack adequate housing, food and medical care.

I have the privilege of representing a district in South Florida, home to one of the largest communities of Holocaust survivors in the nation. Many of the survivors have approached me expressing concerns and frustration over the failure of the insurance companies to settle their claims.   

To address this problem, I introduced a bill during the last Congress, along with my colleague U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), to require insurance companies that do business in the United States to disclose the names of Holocaust-era insurance policyholders. The bill also allows Holocaust survivors or their heirs to sue the insurance companies in U.S. courts.

Unfortunately, the bill did not reach the House floor, in part because of the insurance industry’s fierce lobbying efforts against the measure. A lack of interest among key members of Congress also has pushed the rights of Holocaust survivors into the legislative abyss.  

I will soon be introducing a Holocaust insurance bill similar to the one that was introduced last Congress. It is time for everyone on Capitol Hill to stand up for Holocaust survivors and the families of the victims by passing this important legislation as soon as possible. Failure to do so would tear the moral fiber of our political institutions and tarnish our country’s long-standing commitment to justice.

We will never be able to erase the pain and suffering caused by the Holocaust. But we can help restore a semblance of justice and dignity to those who had everything stripped from them during one of the darkest chapters of human history.

The number of living Holocaust survivors decreases drastically every year, so any further delays are unacceptable. We must act now to help Holocaust survivors attain a level of justice and prevent insurance companies from being unjustly enriched by the atrocities committed by Hitler’s Germany. Complacency is not an option.

(U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) is the ranking Republican on the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee.)
 

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