U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made the following opening statement at this morning's Committee hearing titled "Righting the Enduring Wrongs of the Holocaust: Insurance Accountability and Rail Justice." To watch the live webcast, please click here. Statement by Ros-Lehtinen:
"Good morning, and thank you for joining us for this morning's hearing, "Righting the Enduring Wrongs of the Holocaust: Insurance Accountability and Rail Justice.'
"I want to recognize Mr. Herbert Karliner, who was scheduled to testify at our hearing this morning, but was injured while attending last week's Kristallnacht ceremony. Mr. Karliner's testimony will be submitted for the record and we wish him a speedy recovery.
"It pains me to say that survivors of one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century continue to feel the pain of the Nazis' brutality and oppression. These lingering injustices stem from those who sought to profit from the abuse of innocent victims and that took advantage of circumstance to enrich themselves while others suffered.
"This morning, we will be discussing two situations linked by a common theme: the rights of Holocaust survivors, as American citizens, to bring legal action in federal court. The first is the issue of unpaid Holocaust-era insurance policies.
"In pre-war Europe, hundreds of thousands of individuals who would eventually be victims of the Nazis' crimes sought to protect their families' futures by purchasing insurance policies. However, when the Nazis raided their homes and deported them to ghettos and concentration camps, documentation of their insurance policies was lost. Those who survived the war approached the insurance companies, expecting the companies' records to validate their claims and allow them access to the funds they were owed. Instead, they were turned away for lacking proper documentation, and barred from accessing the companies' records. The insurance companies refused to honor policies without documentation that they alone possessed, and refused to disclose to claimants.
"In other cases, survivors made claims on insurance policy belonging to relatives murdered by the Nazis, only to be told that their claim could not be honored without a death certificate. Can you imagine anything more outrageous than asking for a death certificate for someone murdered in Auschwitz?
"In 1998, the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) was established to resolve these issues. However, ICHEIC suffered numerous flaws, including problems with accountability and oversight, stemming from the fact that the process was greatly controlled by the insurance companies. Eighty four percent -- 70,000 of the 90,000 claims made -- were rejected. Thirty-four thousand were offered a token "humanitarian award' -- cold comfort in the face of the broader dismissal by ICHEIC. Worst of all, survivors were told that this was the only forum in which they could make claims. So, ICHEIC sought to limit the rights and access of Holocaust victims, even though several states had passed laws enabling survivors to pursue legal action against these insurance companies, since they had been summarily dismissed by ICHEIC.
"These survivors deserve the opportunity to have their day in court and present evidence against these companies who have failed to honor their business obligations. Holocaust survivors came here looking for the freedom, tolerance, and opportunity that they were denied in their homelands. We cannot deny these individuals the justice they more than deserve after they have suffered through so much and waited for so long. We cannot allow these companies to continue to profit from the horrors of the Holocaust.
"The other issue we will be addressing this morning is justice for those who were transported to concentration camps by the French rail company SNCF. SNCF operated trains for profit that transported over 75,000 victims to, primarily Jews, but also American POWs, to Nazi concentration camps. These trains were run as commercial transactions: SNCF was paid per passenger per kilometer by the Nazis to move them to their deaths. The conditions in the trains were horrible: passengers were forced to stand with virtually no food or water or without sanitary facilities. And SNCF knew exactly how bad these conditions were because their employees cleaned the cars after they reached their destinations, removing the corpses of innocent victims who died during the journey.
"SNCF has not denied its wartime activities. Its officials claim that they were forced to do the things they did. And yet, SNCF has not contributed to post-war reparations to victims of the brutality of the Nazis. And when Holocaust survivors in the United States brought a class action suit against SNCF, the rail company hid again, this time, behind the foreign sovereign immunity, claiming that SCNF is an instrument of the French government and should not be held liable.
"Notably, SNCF has used the opposite defense in French court, claiming to be performing private functions rather than government work. They can't have it both ways."
"I now turn to the Ranking Minority Member, Mr. Berman, for his opening statement."
NOTE: H.R. 890, the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act of 2011, was authored by Ros-Lehtinen with her Florida colleague U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL). This bipartisan measure would allow survivors to avail themselves of state laws passed to allow them to have their day in court and to require European insurance companies conducting business in those states to disclose Nazi-era insurance policy information. The measure also establishes a federal right of action to recover proceeds due under the covered policies.
H.R. 1193, the Holocaust Rail Justice Act, was authored by U.S. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) and will prevent foreign sovereign immunity from being raised as a defense by the French rail company SNCF in a class action law suit brought against them by Holocaust survivors. The suit alleges that SNCF operated trains for profit that transported more than 75,000 innocent victims to concentration camps during the Holocaust.
BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT