Holocaust survivors struggling to collect what they say is $20 billion in Jewish life insurance policies never paid by European companies scored a major breakthrough this week when members of Congress filed legislation allowing them to sue.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., introduced two companion bills that would force European companies such as German's Allianz SE and Italy's Assicurazioni Generali to disclose lists of pre-World War II policies and enable the aging survivors to recover compensation under those policies in U.S. courts.
"People who are wronged are entitled to seek justice," Nelson said in a statement.
"For far too long, insurance companies have enriched themselves by shamefully denying the claims of Holocaust survivors, and by refusing to disclose Holocaust-era insurance policies," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. "The community of Holocaust survivors is shrinking rapidly, and only through immediate action can we help the survivors attain a semblance of the justice which they deserve, which has been denied them for decades."
Other members of the House and the Senate have also pledged support for the legislation.
Following World War II, many Jewish families who tried to collect on policies taken out by people killed in Nazi camps were told they needed the original paperwork or a death certificate, neither of which was available.
Sam Dubbin, an attorney for the survivors in South Florida, said various postwar claims funds and commissions have resulted in payment of only about 3 percent of the 879,000 life, property and other policies held by European Jews in 1938-1939. Those polices, worth about $600 million then, would be projected at about $20 billion today, he said.
Since the 1950s, several organizations have been created to deal with insurance and other claims by Holocaust survivors and their families, including the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims. That organization offered or awarded some $306 million to 48,000 claimants from 1998 to 2007 –- a sum many survivors say falls way short.
Congress is the last hope for the survivors, whose bid to sue the insurers has been rejected by federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, which said only the commission could resolve the dispute. If the bipartisan bill passes, survivors will be able to sue in state courts.
For years, the Holocaust Survivors' Foundation USA has been pushing hard for legislation to address the issue.
"The American public has been mostly unaware that its own government supports foreign insurance companies that assisted the Nazi regime and exploited the Holocaust to steal billions of dollars from Holocaust victims and their families, making survivors, including U.S. veterans and combat veterans, second class citizens under American law," the foundation said in a statement.
The foundation claims Nelson and President Obama had broken their promises three years ago to support their cause – a claim that Nelson and Obama deny.
Members of the foundation were planning to protest Friday outside a Miami Beach political fundraiser featuring Nelson and Obama. But they canceled the protest after Nelson, Florida's only statewide elected Democrat who is up for-re-election next year, filed the bill.
"We are extremely grateful that Sen. Bill Nelson has filed legislation in the U.S. Senate to restore our full rights as American citizens," members of the group said in a statement, adding that they look forward to working with Congress to persuade the Obama administration to support the bill.
The bill has been introduced in the House in prior years but never gained traction. In 2010, Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and B'nai B'rith International, said it might "raise unreasonable hopes and set up false expectations" among survivors with war-era insurance policies. And, they said, it could jeopardize negotiations with the German government for money for home health care or other services.
Sabia Schwarzer, vice president at Allianz of America, said the company has acknowledged its collaboration with the Nazi regime. She said the Third Reich forced Allianz and other insurers to surrender Jewish polices and assets.
"The companies had to cooperate with the Nazi government or they would have probably been out of business, "Schwarzer said. "It wasn't like Allianz kept any of that."
Schwarzer said the company is willing to listen to anyone with a claim from the World War II era.
"We will always investigate that," she said. "It is absolutely an open door for anybody who thinks they may have something that is not settled."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.