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Survivor Advocacy Groups Split over Bill Allowing Insurance Suits


A congressional bill that would reopen the door to lawsuits against insurance companies that defaulted on policies sold to European Jews before World War II is dividing survivor groups.

The Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act of 2007 calls for the collection of specific records of what policies European insurance companies sold to Jews between 1933 and 1945. The list would be accessible to the public.

Those who believe they have claims against insurance companies could sue to collect on their policies.

Leaders of about 20 local and national survivor groups are backing the bill, but two of the most influential Holocaust organizations — the Claims Conference, which for decades has generally played the lead role in negotiating deals benefiting survivors, and the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants — say the measure is seriously flawed.

The Claims Conference believes the law could jeopardize any future negotiations with the German government over reparations because officials in Berlin will see it as a violation of previous agreements that closed the door on future lawsuits.

“It is absolutely true that the German government is very, very insistent that when we make a deal, we keep it with them, and they were very surprised and disappointed to see that an element of the Jewish community” wanted to renege on a deal “that had been worked out and arranged and agreed upon by everyone, including the State Department,” said the chairman of the Claims Conference, Julius Berman.

“They have come to us and said they feel very strongly on the issue. They have said that if they cannot make deals that we can keep, then it serves no purpose to sit with the Jewish community and negotiate,” he said. “And the State Department feels just as strongly.”

The American Gathering feels U.S. House of Representatives Bill 1746 would merely open up the insurance claims issue to class-action lawsuits that would benefit lawyers more than victims.

“While there are positive aspects to H.R. 1746, we believe it to be flawed in that it appears to be principally motivated by the avarice of lawyers, and in that it raises unrealistic expectations in the survivor community,” the American Gathering, which represents some 80,000 survivors and family members, said in a statement.

A Dec. 11 hearing on the bill before the House Committee on Financial Services was postponed Tuesday, a Claims Conference official said.

The measure was introduced in March following the expiration of a mechanism to help survivors recover insurance money, the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.

Established in 1998, ICHEIC created a database of several hundred thousand Jews whom insurance companies said might have held policies. The process helped more than 90,000 Jews recover some money.

Those fighting for the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act see ICHEIC as a failure.

According to estimates included in the bill, insurance companies defaulted on between $17 billion and $200 billion worth of insurance policies, but the ICHEIC process only recovered $250 million and helped 5 percent of the Jewish families who owned insurance policies.

The majority of those who did receive reparations received a nominal $1,000 payout because the insurance companies claimed they could not find adequate proof of the details of the original policies.

Alexander Moskovic lost his entire family in the war, and he recalls his father talking about insurance when he was a child. He went through the ICHEIC process and received the $1,000.

“The first thing they asked you for is documentation like death certificates,” Moskovic said, “but in Dachau and Birkenau they didn’t give death certificates. ICHEIC failed us.”

Now that the process has expired, he and others would like to take legal action against the European insurance agencies — but under the agreement that established ICHEIC, survivors listed and notified by the insurance agencies could no longer sue once the process ended.

The bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (D-Fla.), seeks to restore the right of survivors to turn to the courts.

“People got screwed massively and were always told they would have the right to go to court,” said attorney Samuel Dubbin, who is representing Moskovic and other survivors.

Dubbin dismissed the notion that lawyers stand to be the main beneficiaries of the legislation, saying that all bills involving insurance companies include provisions allowing citizens to hire lawyers to represent them.

He also said the Claims Conference — of which the American Gathering is a member — was complicit in the failing of ICHEIC, as it was one of the primary administrators of the program.

Just as Dubbin’s critics have sought to portray him as someone willing to upend international reparation agreements in order to rake in legal fees, he accused the Claims Conference of selling out the survivors for its own aggrandizement.

“The insurance companies banded together and reached out to a group of prominent Jews who had become well known by them as people who love to wave the flag of the Holocaust and then settle for pennies on the dollar,” Dubbin told JTA.

The 20 or so leaders of survivor groups backing the bill sent a letter Nov. 26 to Rep. Barney Frank (D.-Mass.), the chairman of the financial services committee.

“That stance by these organizations not only hinders the justice that has been denied for decades to survivors and their families, but is morally outrageous,” Dubbin wrote. “Those organizations siding with the insurers’ and German Government’s chilling push to block the passage of HR 1746 puts them squarely in the path of survivors’ rights to fair compensation and, all too disturbingly, promotes the persecution visited on survivors because they were born the wrong religion.”

Germany has come out against the proposed bill. Its ambassador to the United States, Klaus Scharioth, voiced his country’s concerns about the bill in a letter to Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House International Relations Committee and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress.

“The German government does not have any evidence that millions of insurance holders’ names have been withheld,” the German envoy wrote in his Oct. 19 letter. “Rather, the German government’s view is that there are no significant number of unsolved insurance claims remaining open.”

Claims Conference officials said it was important to uphold the deal stating that insurance claims will not be reopened en masse because reneging on the agreement would harm efforts to negotiate the return of Jewish property still not recovered.

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