WASHINGTON – Sixty-six years after she survived the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, Renee Firestone is still trying to find out what became of an insurance policy that she suspects her father, who died in the Holocaust, took out from an Italian insurer before the war. Ms. Firestone, 87, a naturalized American citizen from the former Czechoslovakia who became a fashion designer in Los Angeles, expected resistance from the insurance companies that fielded claims from many thousands of Holocaust survivors and their heirs. What she did not foresee, she said, was the opposition from her own government – including the State Department and Congress – to her getting her day in court.”What’s so painful is that we can see they’re just waiting for all of us to die,” she said.The legal claims by hundreds of American survivors like Ms. Firestone have set off an intense lobbying campaign in Washington on their behalf. But opposition from the government and even from leading Jewish groups has created an uncomfortable rift between groups that are normally in alliance and has created a potential minefield for President Obama.
“The whole thing saddens me,” Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate who is perhaps the most well-known Holocaust survivor, said of the rift over the insurance benefits. “I don’t know how or why this has happened, but the survivors should be helped however we can. “The State Department, under both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, has vigorously opposed the idea of allowing survivors to press claims in court against European insurance companies because they say it would undermine a reparations agreement that the United States reached in 2000 with Germany, which led to $300 million in insurance payments to survivors and their heirs.The threat of private lawsuits, administration officials say, treads on the president’s authority to set foreign policy. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit last year validated the State Department’s position as it dismissed claims brought against an Italian insurance company, Generali, which had issued many policies before the Holocaust to European Jews who wanted to protect themselves financially against the rise of Nazi power.”The State Department is concerned that lawsuits by the survivors could not only disrupt prior agreements with European governments but might also have a negative impact on other reparation agreements growing out of the Holocaust as well,” the department said in a statement on Friday. In line with the State Department, leading Jewish groups like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League have also opposed the survivors’ attempts to plead their case in court and have lobbied against prior efforts by Congress to intervene, as have the insurance companies themselves. Now, however, a new push in Congress on behalf of the survivors appears to be gaining some ground.”I’m feeling optimistic that this is our year,” said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who introduced legislation in the House in March that would force insurers to disclose the names of Holocaust-era policy holders and allow survivors and their heirs to seek claims in American courts. Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, whose maternal grandparents were Sephardic Jews and whose Miami area district includes many survivors, said she was well aware of the stiff opposition the idea has generated and the concerns from the government about undermining foreign agreements.”This will not usurp anybody’s authority,” she said in an interview. “This is about giving the survivors their day in court. We’ve already waited too long.