Holocaust Survivors Bill To Be Toned Down

By RUSSELL BERMAN, Staff Reporter of the Sun
June 25, 2008

WASHINGTON — A key House panel plans to scale back a bill that would allow Holocaust survivors to sue European insurers for unpaid claims and force the companies to publish the names of all policyholders during the Nazi era.

The measure, known as the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act, has divided some in the Jewish community, pitting survivors who believe the companies haven’t paid enough against leaders who say the legislation threatens years of official negotiations for restitution and would undermine American credibility.

Sponsored by two Florida lawmakers, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, and Rep. Robert Wexler, a Democrat, the original bill would allow Holocaust survivors or their heirs to sue European insurers in American courts, and it would require companies to create a registry of policyholders with the U.S. Department of Commerce.

In a statement last month, Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said Holocaust victims had “waited too long for fair and honest treatment by life insurance companies.”

Five prominent Jewish organizations wrote lawmakers of their opposition to the bill, including the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. They noted that the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, established and recognized by the federal government in 1998, had already succeeded in securing more than $300 million in insurance claims, in addition to more funds for home care and other social service benefits for survivors worldwide.

The House Financial Services Committee will consider the bill today, and the panel’s Democratic chairman, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, plans to scrap the registry requirement and limit the lawsuits that survivors can bring, House aides told The New York Sun yesterday.

The aides said that although several Jewish groups praised the changes, they remained opposed to the bill.

A Holocaust survivor who is treasurer of the Claims Conference, Roman Kent, said in an interview that advocates of the bill were well-intentioned but misguided. “They thought — and many of them still think — that what they are doing is good for the survivors. This I think is absolutely wrong,” he said. Supporters of the bill had overstated the potential for additional unpaid claims, he said, and opening the gates for lawsuits that would leave survivors mired in years of expensive litigation. The legal standards for restitution would be much higher than those agreed upon during official negotiations with the insurers.

The bill, Mr. Kent said, “would do tremendous damage to 99.9% of survivors.”