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Holocaust survivors seek help from Congress over pre-WWII insurance policies

They’ve been told no many times before, but Holocaust survivors across the United States aren’t giving up their fight to file suit in U.S. courts against European companies for unpaid life insurance policies sold before World War II worth billions of dollars.

Only Congress can help.

That brought dozens of Holocaust survivors, many of whom live in Florida, to Washington on Thursday to urge the House Judiciary Committee to consider legislation that would allow lawsuits to be filed in U.S. courts.

The prospects aren’t good.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, met with some of the survivors, but has not scheduled a crucial hearing needed to consider the legislation. He has told key lawmakers he wants to review it more before making any decision.

The proposed bipartisan bill — sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton — would give thousands of survivors the right to sue Germany’s Allianz SE, Italy’s Assicurazioni Generali and other major European firms in U.S. courts to recover the value of life insurance policies bought before World War II. It would also force those companies to disclose lists of policies held by Jews during that era.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of survivors have been denied access to the U.S. courts because the federal government has said that the claims system under an international Holocaust commission is the only way for them to be compensated for their losses.

The bill, which has languished for years, is named for Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress. His widow, Annette Lantos, and his daughters attended the press conference Thursday.

The bill passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Ros-Lehtinen, but it must also get through the House Judiciary Committee before it can go to the House floor for a possible vote.

Said Ros-Lehtinen: “All they want is the opportunity to bring their cases before an unbiased judge."

Smith told Ros-Lehtinen and Deutch that he’s concerned about changing an international claims process endorsed by three previous administrations: Clinton, Bush and Obama. Also: European insurers and their governments say they’ve already met their obligations to most Holocaust survivors with unpaid policies.

Smith also told the two South Florida lawmakers that he is concerned about their proposed legislation because major Jewish groups oppose any additional changes to the claims process — which was mostly handled by the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.

The commission paid out about $305 million, and an additional $200 million went to humanitarian programs for survivors. This is less than 3 percent of the amount owed to victims and their families — estimated today at roughly $20 billion, according to Holocaust survivors’ lawyers who want to sue in U.S. court.

Several large national Jewish organizations — including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith and the World Jewish Congress — have previously argued that re-engaging in court could unrealistically raise the expectations of survivors.

That’s because those organizations benefitted from the existing settlement agreement, said David Mermelstein, of the Miami Holocaust Survivors of Dade County.

"Money talks," he said.

The bill continues to lag in the Senate, where Sen. Bill Nelson is leading the charge and the main sponsor. He took some heat from Holocaust survivors last year for not pushing harder on the legislation.

Deutch said they’re aware that supporters have their work cut out for them. But he also said that his fellow members of the Judiciary Committee are committed to justice, and the bipartisan nature of the legislation should help.

They are representing "powerful advocates with strong stories," Deutch said. "It’s not about foreign agreements, it’s not about relationships with foreign governments, it’s about access to our court system for the purpose of pursuing justice.”

Holocaust survivor Jay Ipson, who now lives in Virginia, said that if war criminals were allowed trials at Nuremberg, they, too, should be able to sue.

"Those Nazis had their day in court," he said. "We as Holocaust survivors are not asking for anything that those Nazis didn’t get."