U.S. Holocaust survivors who have struggled to gain the right to sue giant European insurers that stole their families’ death benefits during World War II are calling out the Obama administration for ignoring their pleas for justice.
Several of the leaders of the South Florida-based Holocaust Survivors Foundation-USA politically supported President Barack Obama. But the group is accusing his administration in a letter of denying victims of the Nazi death camps access to U.S. courts to recover untold millions of dollars in looted life insurance proceeds.
The group’s leaders met Friday on Miami Beach to draw media attention to their struggle while they commemorated the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. It is recognized as the start of the Holocaust, when Nazi soldiers smashed the windows of Jewish homes, stores, businesses and synagogues in Germany and Austria.
The survivors distributed their letter, titled “Welcome back to Miami, Mr. President,” to reporters on the same day that Obama was scheduled to attend a series of private Democratic Party fundraisers in the Miami area.
In the letter addressed to Obama, the survivors reminded the president that his campaign sought and secured their political support — “then proceeded to ignore our pleas to restore our rights to go to court to recover unpaid insurance policies sold to our parents and grandparents.”
They cited the Obama administration’s opposition to their legal case that failed before the U.S. Supreme Court, and to congressional legislation that would give Holocaust survivors the right to sue the German company, Allianz, and other European insurers that aided the Nazis.
“We are not asking for charity, only the same rights as every other American to go to U.S. courts to enforce legal contracts,” read the letter, signed by Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation president, David Schaecter, 84, and other members.
“How would you feel if your own government sided with such predators against you and your family? Most Americans understand that it would be unacceptable to lose their legal right to challenge an insurance company who dishonored a family policy in this way. Yet this is the position of your State and Justice Departments. For shame.”
A White House spokeswoman referred a Miami Herald reporter’s request for comment to the Justice Department.
The Justice Department, in a stand shared by the Obama administration and European insurance companies, has long maintained that an international Holocaust claims commission formed in 1998 was the only way to resolve survivors’ insurance policy disputes.
But the South Florida-based survivors group has always countered that the international claims process was deeply flawed.
In their letter distributed Friday, the Holocaust survivors pointed out that it was persuaded in the past not to protest against the president himself, because of pledges that the Obama administration “would honorably deal with our concerns.”
“Most recently, during the 2012 election, Vice President [Joe] Biden promised us he would review these issues from top to bottom. Despite one polite meeting, nothing changed.”
“There is no more time for us, Mr. President,” the group’s letter read. “This has always been and remains about life and death. Will you lead? Will you act? Are you with the Holocaust survivors or are you against us?”
The group’s lobbying hasn’t fallen completely on deaf ears.
In recent years, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, former chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs — along with colleagues Ted Deutch, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Alcee Hastings, Mario Diaz-Balart and Fredericka Wilson — took a stand as they tried to push legislation through Congress that would allow potentially thousands of Holocaust-era policyholders in South Florida and elsewhere to sue Allianz and other European insurers in U.S. courts. Her bill drew the support of more than 100 colleagues in the House and four others in the Senate, including Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio.
But her legislation encountered opposition from the Obama administration, European insurers and even some major Jewish organizations, which backed an international Holocaust claims commission and other vehicles to resolve disputes with survivors.
Despite unanimous passage of the bill in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the House leadership refused to allow a floor vote last year.
Schaecter, an Auschwitz survivor and Miami Lakes businessman, said there are 100,000-plus survivors in the United States, with more than one-third living in poverty, who have been “robbed of their dignity.”
The German insurer, Allianz, which has 10,000 employees in the United States, has acknowledged the survivors’ profound suffering. The company has openly admitted its collaboration with the Nazis, noting a “groundbreaking” book was published in 2001 on its dark history. Among the disclosures: Allianz sold hundreds of thousands of life insurance policies to Jews during the 1930s and ’40s, while insuring the death camps during World War II. The company also sent money to the Nazis instead of rightful Jewish beneficiaries.
“While we cannot undo any aspect of our company’s history, we can learn from it and work to make sure the horrors of the Holocaust are never again repeated,” Allianz spokeswoman Sabia Schwarzer said in a statement last year.
Schwarzer said the German insurer met its obligation to the vast majority of Holocaust survivors with unpaid policies through the International Commission on Holocaust Insurance Claims.
But Miami attorney Samuel Dubbin, who represents the South Florida-based survivors group, said the international commission only obtained payouts of $250 million for about 14,000 claimants, or less than 3 percent of all outstanding Holocaust-era life insurance claims. The commission also issued 34,000 humanitarian payments of $1,000 each.
Experts such as Sidney Zabludoff, a retired U.S. government economist who later worked for a Jewish claims restitution group, estimated that Allianz, the Italian insurer Assicurazioni Generali and other companies sold a total of 879,000 life insurance policies to Eastern European Jews that have a present value of about $20 billion.