Black and White? Or 256 Shades of Gray? HR 1746: The Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act

5 Comments

By Jeanette Friedman

Sometimes serious matters cannot be reduced to mere sound bites or black and white. Complicated issues should be examined carefully before an action is taken. One of those things is HR1746, a bill now before the House Committee on Banking and Financial Services. This bill, the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act, will allow survivors to sue insurance companies that are withholding payments on policies dating back to the Holocaust Era. If passed, Congress will essentially disavow the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) agreement.

Established in 1998, ICHEIC was created as the outcome of an international agreement signed by officials from the United States Department of State, the German government, other European countries, Israel and Jewish organizations. It also involved U.S. state insurance regulators, European insurance companies, and the European Economic Commission. It was chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, whose leadership was sought precisely because of his well-earned ethical standing.

ICHEIC worked with 75 European insurance companies and “partner entities” on a voluntary basis and resolved more than 90,000 claims. As a result of its efforts, $306 million went to 48,000+ Holocaust survivors, their heirs and families of victims, often with little or no documentation to prove their cases. More than $169 million in additional funds was also secured to benefit needy Holocaust survivors worldwide. And when ICHEIC concluded operations in 2007, individual Holocaust survivors who were dissatisfied with the process clearly could pursue legal action against insurance companies.

HR 1746 seeks to abrogate all that ICHEIC accomplished. True, ICHIEC was flawed—as internal conflicts between survivors, diplomats and industry executives persisted throughout the commission’s existence. Nevertheless, ICHEIC did what it could to get funds, and quickly, to as many survivors as possible. (See www.icheic.org for details of the process.)

The key word is quickly. Those who signed the agreement tried to put money into the hands of those who passed agreed upon criteria, into the hands of poor survivors, and to the agencies serving them around the world—from the Americas to Australia, from Israel to the FSU. The idea was to avoid lawsuits—which can take insufferable lengths of time, are prohibitively expensive, and promise little in return. While lawsuits slowly wended their way through the courts, survivors were dying at alarming rates. Impoverished survivors were dying even more quickly than that. In Israel, the former Soviet Union, Florida and New York, there were hundreds of thousands of aging survivors who needed help immediately, not years in the future. ICHEIC got the money to them for the promise of legal peace.

Klaus Scharioth, the German ambassador to the United States, wrote to the late Congressman Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor and chair of the House International Relations committee: “At ICHEIC’s final session on 20 March 2007 there was overall agreement that German insurers have fulfilled all obligations under the ICHEIC trilat¬eral agreement and have therefore deserved permanent and all-embracing legal peace.”

He noted that the German Government acknowledges without qualification Germany’s historical responsibility for the Holocaust and Holocaust survivors. He pointed out there are “signifi¬cant legal hurdles posed by the federal rules [in the U.S. and Germany] of evidence for claims brought in court.” The hurdles didn’t apply to the ICHEIC process, since many claimants did not have to produce documents and other evidence to get claims processed. Scharioth added that in court actions against insurance companies, one could not guarantee success and that voluntary agreements, such as ICHEIC, helped Holocaust survivors whose claims would not stand up in court.

The letter reiterated that “Claimants with sufficient documentation can still file their claims with the insurance companies concerned, as insurers promised to continue processing these claims—and apply ICHEIC standards in their decisions—even after the ICHEIC process has been con¬cluded.”

But HR 1746 demands that insurance companies seeking to do business in the United States reveal all their records from 1933 through 1945. It exacts penalties and damages for those companies failing to comply. The bill mandates the creation of a Holocaust Insurance Registry to be maintained by the federal Archivist. (The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of creating and maintaining the registry would be tens of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars.)

HR 1746 will hurt Holocaust survivors around the world, as Scharioth explained to Lantos.

“Even if the legislation currently under discussion should clear the way for a few sur¬vivors to win large sums in court, it would certainly jeopardize the possibility of com¬pensating large numbers of Holocaust survivors through voluntary contributions, for example, by industry. Indeed, turning away from the principle of legal peace after voluntary compensation has been paid, would make it much harder to convince indus¬try not only in Germany, but anywhere in the world [to cooperate]…. HR 1746, in our opinion, is contrary to good faith…Negotiation can help Holocaust survi¬vors in a better and more timely manner than litigation ever could. Should HR 1746…become law, it would likely be impossible to enlist the support of any Ger¬man company for similar projects in the future….Hence, HR 1746 would do nothing to improve the lot of the majority of Holocaust survivors, but would at the same time jeopardize future agreements that would really serve to benefit Holocaust survivors in dire need of help….”

Secretary of State Eagleburger, former Deputy Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat and signatories of the trilateral agreements agree. They are concerned that no one will come to the table to negotiate the expansion of categories under which Holocaust survivors receive funding. In short, by reneging on the ICHEIC agreements, by creating a federal agency to become part of the litigious process against agencies that have so far, admittedly begrudgingly, opened their coffers to afford some survivor relief, all the participants in the agreements will no longer be viable partners for any future negotiations.

Considering the history of survivor litigation, the scandals concerning the handling of survivor funds, the news of some attorneys involved in such litigation being convicted of malfeasance, the last thing the U.S. and the Jewish community need is to further such a state of affairs at Holocaust survivors’ expense. Lawsuits, especially class-action suits, can take years to resolve, and then no one sees much money except the lawyers. Do the survivors really have the time?

Survivors in need have to have their needs fulfilled now. If Congress wants to initiate legislation that will cost millions of taxpayer dollars to enforce, why not expend those millions on behalf of Holocaust survivors now? Why not guarantee health care and economic sustenance instead of law suits?

The proponents of this bill say that if you are against this bill, you are against the Holocaust survivors. They paint a picture in black and white. Perhaps the many shades of gray involved here might warrant a closer look.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. T. Venetianer
    Mar 07, 2008 @ 11:08:18

    Dear Madam,

    Although ICHEIC’s dealing was a disaster, far from what is described in this article (for example, they spent almost 100 million dollars for their operational budget, something that isn’t mentioned) I am not willing to discuss its misdeeds. Suffice is to say that no matter how prominent Mr. Eagleburger was in the past, he did a very poor job of managing ICHEIC and the organization turned into a huge and expensive bureaucracy. For each claim they paid something (around 47,000), they spent $ 2,000 in operational expenditures, double of the $ 1,000 they paid to 34,000 claimants who received the Humanitarian Award.

    What I wish to tell you is that your perception of Bill 1746 is totally wrong. The intention is to get all European insurers (mainly Generali, the biggest ganef among them) to disclose the list of Jewish policyholders who probably perished in the Holocaust. The insurers refuse to make such list public because they know that they STOLE billions of dollars from those victims and are unwilling to return those looted amounts back to their legally entitled owners – namely US, the survivors and heirs of victims. Bill 1746, if enacted, would correct that absurd injustice.

    Just think about one single question: why would the Germans (or any other countries who collaborated with the Nazis and stole Jewish assets) be entitled to LEGAL PEACE? Do we, the survivors or relatives of our murdered families members, have been granted any kind of PEACE? Do our murdered beloved REST IN PEACE? Will we ever have PEACE OF MIND? So why do you advocate PEACE for those who knowingly STOLE from us and after 60 years keep denying their abominable crimes?

  2. partisan patrol
    Mar 08, 2008 @ 15:32:20

    The past and current Jewish leadership sold Holocaust Survivors down the river. HR 1746 is a breath of fresh air. Holocaust Survivors are quite capable of looking out for their own interests. We want to manage our affairs. Our institutional brothers should respect that. Their power hungry and greedy behavior has created this mess. Only Holocaust Survivors can restore dignity and respect to the insurance, restitution and reparations process. The Jewish institutions that now have a strangle hold and muzzle on Holocaust Survivors must be broken. Hopefully HR 1746 will help give free and independent voice to Holocaust Survivors. I totally support Mr. Arbiter and the Florida attorney ( Mr.Dubin?)who spoke in support of the bill. Thank you Rep. Wexler for your support and excellent argument. Thank you Rep. B. Frank for holding hearings on a subject
    Holocaust Survivors are very interested in.

    The Bad Arelson information should be made available to everyone without restrictions immediately. No excuses. We are in the information and technology age. Limiting access is undemocratic and not the Jewish way to go. Lets not repeat the mistakes of the Dead Scrolls.

  3. Thekla Nordwind
    Mar 09, 2008 @ 13:14:41

    I respectfully request that you encourage members to approve HR 1746, the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act. ICHEIC supposedly did the best it could working with their ‘partners’, the various insurance companies; however, their was neither accountability nor transparency in their operations. Briefly, I made applications for 2 cousins who were sisters. In about 2005, ICHEIC informed me that a policy had been located for one of the sisters. Although the face value was 100,000 Deutsch Marks, which was unusually high, they could find no financial information so they offered the minimum settlement of $3,000. I appealed, based upon the fact that my uncle would not have taken out a policy for one daughter and not the other………and, guess what? All of a sudden, after 8 years, ICHEIC located the policy for the other sister in the same amount with the same offer of $3,000. I wrote to Mr. Eagleburger but he did not respond. I accepted the offer as I just didn’t have the strength to continue.
    Survivors should have the right to redress. “LEGAL PEACE” should be offered to survivors, not just to the insurance companies who have been unjustly rewarded for too many years.

  4. C. Minuskin
    Mar 10, 2008 @ 20:58:27

    I agree with the views of partisan patrol.

    The Jewish leadership has given us years and years of exploitation, secrecy, double talk, hypocrisy, cronyism, subjugation, corruption, wasteful spending and Eagleburger, Neuborne, Kagan, Singer and Taylor.

    Wexler, Frank, Arbeiter, Dubin, Rechter, etc. give eloquent voice to the rights, freedom and the pursuit of happiness for Holocaust Survivors.

    Holocaust Survivors and the Jewish community need new Jewish leadership. The old guard needs to be replaced by intelligent, enlightened, democratic leadership that understands and practices Jewish traditions, teachings and values.

  5. Hareli Mordechai
    Mar 24, 2008 @ 08:03:07

    A great mistake during the sixty years of restitution efforts, has been the absence of a clear-cut distinction between indemnification for the immense suffering of Jews during the Holocaust and between the claims for return of their property, plundered by the Nazis. Although both issues can be viewed as pursuing of justice, they should have been tackled separately, instead of being constantly mixed up in the restitution negotiations and merged in the collective conscience of victims and perpetrators alike.

    The main difference between the two issues is, that while one can put a price tag on the value of stolen property, the value of indemnification for suffering cannot be assessed and any attempt to quantify it smacks of immorality, tantamount to desecrating the memory of the 6 millions Holocaust martyrs. This is also why many people find the dealing with Holocaust restitution “distasteful”. In contrary to these reactions of understandable repulsion, there should be no qualms, while pressing for reclamation of the robbed possessions, unreturned for two generations after the commitment of the crime.

    The merger of the two issues leads to a cynical misuse of the cliche saying, that “no amount of money could do the justice and compensate for the sufferings of Holocaust”, being often a cover-up of withholding the property which should be fully compensated. Such was the case, when ICHEIC offered the 8A1 Humanitarian award of 1000 $, while turning down many requests for a full compensation of documented policies on formalistic grounds. One has to wonder also about the statement of the German ambassador, Mr. Scharioth, emphasizing his government’s acknowledgement of historical responsibility for the Holocaust, while opposing a disclosure of the insurance records. Yes, the German state has certainly gone a long way to atone for the terrible crimes of the Nazis Reich and to reach genuine reconciliation with the Jewish people. Unfortunately, as long as there is a suspicion that some of the booty remained unreturned, any talk about assuming moral responsibility has got a hollow ring. This is even worse, if the suspicion is substantiated by a continuous refusal to disclose information necessary for the recovery. In order to restore the trust, absolute transparency should be established, clearing all obstructions on the path to justice.

    The arguments brought up against the HR1746 are unjustified and even annoying. The claim, that no one will negotiate increased funding for Holocaust survivors, if HR1746 should be accepted, is an excellent example of mixing up the two different issues: moral and material. It is tantamount to threatening: “If you will press to get back what has been robbed from you, you will get no compensation for the injuries inflicted upon you during the robbery.” Regretfully, Mr. Scharioth’s warning, that HR1746 “would jeopardize future agreements that would really serve to benefit Holocaust survivors in dire need of help”, appears to bear a similar stance.

    Coming to the ambassador’s statement that “Claimants with sufficient documentation can still file their claims…even after the ICHEIC process has been concluded” Mr. Scharioth and Ms. Friedman should ask themselves, where such documentation can be found 60 years after the Holocaust. They also ought to understand, that if such documentation existed, it would have been already submitted to ICHEIC before.

    Another detail, which has been omitted, is the fact, that the German insurers will not accept new claims that do not name companies. However, such information cannot be unearthed by claimants at this time, unless some new archival material should become available. The Arolsen archives will probably yield only scarce information about confiscated property, which will be searchable only in the future. The only untapped source, containing such information, are the “Declarations of Jewish Property as of April 27, 1938″, which all the Jews in the German Reich, have been forced to submit. Those declarations provide a comprehensive list of all possessions and assets and they can definitely serve as a unique source of detailed information about the insurance policies, such as name of company, policy number and amount insured. However, they remain practically inaccessible, being scattered throughout the various official archives in Germany and with a complex procedure for the clearance of the documents. Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney raised a question about the property declarations during the hearing on HR1746 and Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy, State Department’s Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues promised to look into this matter.

    Let us conclude with the quotation of prophet Elijah, asking King Ahab, who murdered Naboth in order to seize his vineyard, coveted by Queen Izebel: “Hast thou killed and also inherited?” (1 Kings 21:19). The prophet would never rest, until the murderer, besides being punished for his crime, would return the robbed booty and he would surely turn down with disgust any proposal of “legal peace” if such arrangement would be existent in his times.

Leave a Reply