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Help for Holocaust victims

Editorial

Two bills in Congress could remove roadblocks faced by those who bought insurance to protect themselves and their families against the Nazis.

June 15, 2012
  • Dr. Jack Brauns of West Covina holds two insurance documents he buried before being sent to a German concentration camp.
Dr. Jack Brauns of West Covina holds two insurance documents he buried before… (Los Angeles Times )

In Europe, as the Nazis rose to power, many Jews tried to protect themselves and their families financially by purchasing life insurance policies, annuities, even dowry policies. For decades after World War II, getting payment on those policies — particularly difficult when survivors and heirs had been stripped of all their possessions, including family records — became part of the larger challenge of how to compensate those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Two bills in Congress would help families recover money long denied them. They deserve approval.

With the support of the U.S. government, the insurance industry set up an international commission in 1998 through which European insurers agreed to pay out thousands of claims, using relaxed standards of proof. Not all survivors chose to go through the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims or to accept the payments they were offered. Many criticized the insurers for underpaying or unfairly denying claims. Instead, some filed lawsuits in the U.S. against European insurers doing business here as well. But federal courts rebuffed their attempts, saying they interfered with U.S. foreign policy, which was geared toward securing the European insurance companies' cooperation with the commission and promoting it as the exclusive arena for survivors' claims.

The bills in the House and the Senate would overrule those court decisions and allow survivors to sue. The legislation would also allow states to enact laws (as California once tried to do) to compel European insurers doing business in the state to disclose the names of policyholders from the Holocaust era.

Both theGeorge W. Bushand the Obama administrations have urged courts to disallow individual lawsuits. And the current administration says the legislation would harm the processing of any Holocaust-era claims still underway and cripple relations with countries the U.S. has entered into agreements with regarding a variety of reparation and restitution issues from that period.

Those objections are overblown. The U.S. never guaranteed European insurers that they would be immune from litigation in return for settling claims through the commission. United States officials promised only to file statements in lawsuits arguing that the cases be dismissed in the interest of foreign policy. And they've done that.

Simply allowing survivors to sue is no guarantee of legal success, and many might face arduous battles in court. But that is their risk to take. The U.S. government should not stand in their way.

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