WASHINGTON (JTA) — The widow of U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos called on Congress to pass legislation that would allow Holocaust survivors to pursue civil action against insurance companies.
Lantos, a California Democrat and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee when he died in 2008, "believed that efforts to negotiate comprehensive settlements for those cheated by the insurance companies had failed to adequately meet the test of fairness and success," Annette Lantos wrote in Politico on Wednesday — the same day the Senate Judiciary Committee met to consider the latest iteration of such a bill.
The effort to pass the current version — named for Lantos — is being led in the House of Representatives by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Lantos’ successor as committee chairwoman, and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), and in the Senate by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).
Holocaust survivor groups have championed the legislation.
Opponents, including a number of national Jewish groups and the Obama administration, say the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims process may still consider claims despite being shuttered in 2007. Backers of the bill counter that the commission’s process was inadequate and allowed the insurance companies too much leeway to reject claims. They say that in some cases the insurance companies rejected or underpaid claims based on criteria that would at least be challengeable in court.
Tom Lantos expressed support for the bill in 2007, but sources close to the congressman at the time said he saw it as problematic and did not advocate for a vote by the full House, although he allowed his committee to consider and approve the bill.
Some opponents also say the bill usurps executive branch primacy in determining foreign policy and would upend delicate negotiations with a number of European governments, casting a shadow over ongoing efforts to extract more compensation from the governments, but Ros-Lehtinen and other supporters contend that the legislation simply allows fair access to the courts and has no bearing on other negotiations — an argument echoed by Annette Lantos in her Poltico Op-Ed.
"Our concern should not be to ensure ‘legal peace’ or ‘closure’ for the behemoth German, Italian, Swiss, and French insurance companies like Allianz, Munich Re, Assicurazioni Generali, Zurich, Swiss Re and AXA, that have refused to honor billions of dollars of unpaid Jewish policies," she wrote. "They are not deserving of our sympathy."
Holocaust survivors have obtained, through the Freedom of Information act, documents suggesting that U.S. officials have acknowledged that insurance companies were not promised legal immunity for signing onto ICHEIC.
"The U.S. government never promised insurance companies immunity from litigation for participating in ICHEIC," Renee Firestone, a survivor from Bevery Hills Calif., said in her testimony to the Senate committee on Wednesday. "The U.S.-German executive agreement itself provides: ‘The United States does not suggest that its policy interests concerning the Foundation in themselves provide an independent legal basis for dismissal.’"
Also addressed at Wednesday’s hearings was a bill that would strip "sovereign immunity" from foreign entities, allowing lawsuits to be filed against SNCF, the French railroad that transported thousands of Jews to their deaths. Witnesses included Leo Bretholz a, a Holocaust survivor.
“This year marks the 70th anniversary of the first SNCF transports from Drancy toward Nazi death camps, yet I still remember the haunting night I jumped from an SNCF train bound for Auschwitz as if it was yesterday,” he said in prepared testimony. "As my 92nd birthday approaches, I only hope that the many dedicated lawmakers who have worked so diligently to move this legislation forward will redouble their efforts to pass this legislation during this Congress."