Tell Congress to tell the insurers to pay up

If you were owed billions of dollars for more than 60 years, wouldn’t you say it is high time to collect the debt?

Being in arrears is morally unacceptable when money is withheld from Holocaust survivors. This has been the case since World War II: Global insurance companies are refusing to make good on policies owed to European Jewish families.

With your help, this might change. We urge you to support legislation that is currently being debated in the House of Representatives, and is desperately needed by survivors and their descendants.

It’s likely that by the end of August the fate of tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors will be sealed. If you write a letter on behalf of the survivors and their families, their lives might be altered for the better.

Here is what is happening. Soon members of the House will take up the issue of insurance policies sold to Jewish families prior to World War II that remain unpaid. Today, billions remain in the hands of global insurance companies. The bill under consideration, HR 1746, would help correct this injustice.

The International Commission for Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) was created by the insurance industry in 1998 to sidetrack legislation in Congress that would have required a complete accounting of the insurance companies’ conduct. When the commission closed its doors in March 2007, it had paid less than 3 percent of the more than $18 billion owed to Holocaust victims’ families. This result is unacceptable.

If not for politicians like the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), we may have had no other choice but to accept it. Lantos championed the best version of the legislation currently being debated in the House.

The version of the legislation that Lantos supported would require insurers — who sold policies to European Jews before World War II and who are currently doing business in the United States — to open their records to Holocaust survivors and their heirs. The legislation also would ensure access to U.S. courts should settlements not be reached. Leaders of the Holocaust survivor movement have testified in Congress, making a compelling case for this law.

Israel Arbeiter is one of those survivors, the son of Hagara and Isaac Arbeiter of Plock, Poland. Arbeiter testified about how an insurance agent collected premiums every week from his father, noting each payment in a booklet; about how on Feb. 26, 1941, SS troopers kicked the family out of their house and told them to leave everything behind, including the insurance papers.

In 2000 the ICHEIC told Arbeiter there was no evidence of any insurance policies for his father.

“How dare anyone presume to deny the history I am certain about because I lived it. I know my father had insurance, but whatever deal was made for ICHEIC failed to produce the facts as I know they happened,” Arbeiter told Congress.

We want Congress to require the companies to disclose their records to survivors and/or their legal heirs, and to disgorge their ill-gotten profits. Those who profited from the Holocaust should not be allowed to be the heirs of our loved ones murdered by Adolf Hitler.

The version of HR 1746 passed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee accomplishes these goals. Unfortunately, the House Financial Services Committee discarded the provisions most helpful to survivors. Also, an anti-Semitic notion has been circulating that the survivors are fine, that they are all rich. This is blatantly untrue.

Fortunately, Congress, beginning with the House Judiciary Committee, has the ability to address the issue and fix the problem.

The time has come to for the community to acknowledge and address the needs of survivors and their families. According to leading demographers of American Jewish communities, there are tens of thousands of U.S. survivors living at or near poverty.

We are always shocked to visit the homes of survivors and see them struggle. Allowing the insurers who reaped billions in Holocaust profits to escape is unacceptable on its face, but reprehensible while so many survivors grow old without having what they need.

We call on Congress to require a full accounting of what was stolen from the survivors. We ask j. readers to start a petition or write a letter to their congressional representatives. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Los Angeles) is particularly important because he has replaced Lantos as the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

It’s important to urge the House to enact HR 1746 in the form originally passed by the Foreign Affairs Committee. Only in this form will the law finally stand squarely on the side of the Holocaust survivors who have been ignored to date.

Congress will decide within the next couple weeks to rectify or ignore this injustice. If an appropriate measure does not pass this year, it will be on everyone’s conscience.

Lani Silver is a Holocaust oral historian and lives in San Franciscan.

David Schaecter is the president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation-USA. He lives in Miami.