The Holocaust not only took the lives of millions of Jews, it also took their assets. More than 70 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, many survivors have still not recovered what they are owed under their families’ insurance policies that covered property, accounts and tangibles which were stolen from them — totaling perhaps as much as $25 billion of unpaid claims, including interest.

Last week, legislation with bipartisan support was introduced in the House of Representatives to allow Holocaust-era insurance beneficiaries to sue in federal courts to recover their unclaimed payments. The legislation, which also has a companion bill in the Senate, would remove time and other bars to the pursuit of those claims and would enable surviving families to seek recovery of the insurance benefits that international insurance companies have kept for themselves since World War II.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a co-sponsor of the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act of 2019, said that “97 percent of the approximately 800,000 policies held in 1938 have yet to be honored.”

“Preventing Holocaust survivors and their families from collecting on documented policies is truly outrageous and cruel,” she said. “But allowing these global insurance corporations to hold on to this unjust enrichment is an offensive revictimization that cannot be allowed to stand.” 

The insurance companies say they aren’t avoiding payment of legitimate claims. Instead, they say that what is keeping survivors from qualifying for benefits is that they don’t have appropriate, supportive documentation of their claims. That argument, of course, ignores the fact that Jews who were rounded up in their homes, transported by cattle car and in forced marches, and who survived death camps or escaped to the forests were unlikely to have kept their insurance papers in order. 

“Of course we have no documents,” one survivor said. “For obvious reasons.” 

The new legislation recognizes those ‘obvious reasons’ and challenges the insurance companies’ unreasonable documentation demands. “Victims of the Holocaust and their families should be compensated for unpaid policies that were specifically set aside for times of trouble — not to enhance the profit margins for the insurance companies,” Wasserman Schultz said. “This legislation would provide the critically important financial support to these victims who were forced to endure the worst that humanity has inflicted on a people.”

We applaud this bipartisan action. The legislation is another step by a Congress that reflects sensitivity to the precarious plight of Holocaust survivors, and follows Congressional action in 2016 that launched a five-year $12 million government initiative to provide support for needy survivors. Those funds, channeled through Jewish Federations of North America, marked the first time that the U.S. government allocated social service funds specifically for Holocaust survivors, and has been very successful. 

The new effort to enable survivors to unlock the vaults of insurance companies for covered losses is a positive step. We urge passage of the legislation. JN

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