Congressman Howard L. Berman, Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the following opening statement at today's committee briefing entitled "Righting the Enduring Wrongs of the Holocaust: Insurance Accountability and Rail Justice":
Madame Chairman, my dear friend Sy Frumkin, an Auschwitz survivor and one of the most prominent national leaders in the Soviet Jewry movement, once said that when it comes to the needs of survivors, those in power should do everything they can to assist.
In the spirit of Sy's words, I believe these bills have merit as a means to draw strong attention to the plight of survivors. Time is of the essence for these Holocaust victims.
For that reason, last year I worked hard to negotiate an assistance fund for the neediest of survivors, including meeting directly with the head of the German insurance association. I did this based on my view that homecare assistance to survivors is paramount among all other issues raised at Prague, a view that I know is shared by Ambassador Eizenstat and the others involved in this issue.
I worked to get these companies to contribute voluntarily, but I was told that the insurance companies would not participate unless other German industries joined the effort, and that other German companies view this as a problem for the insurance industry, not for them.
Those efforts have not borne fruit and as such leave us with fewer options to address a dire situation.
I thus welcome any means to secure more money for the neediest members of this community.
Madame Chair, both the proponents of this bill and the organizations opposed have one interest at heart -- assistance for desperate and needy survivors. For too long elderly survivors have been denied their basic needs, and the problem is getting worse.
A 2003 report by the United Jewish Communities indicated that up to one fourth of survivors live below the poverty line. That number recently climbed to as high as 50 % in Los Angeles County, according to the LA Federation. 75 % of survivors are female, and most live alone.
I am aware of the story of individuals like Bernhard Eckhert, an 85 year-old survivor who was on the poverty line until, through the good work of Bet Tzedek Legal Services last year, he secured a pension and reparations from Germany.
Survivors like Mr. Eckhert should not fear where their next meal is coming from.
The proponents of the insurance bill believe that allowing policy claimants to sue insurance companies will ultimately secure additional assistance not just for the claimants, but for survivors generally.
The detractors have made clear their concerns that the bill could harm future assistance from Germany, upend legal agreements with European allies, and give false hope to plaintiffs.
Again, notwithstanding these concerns, my friend Sy's views win out -- do what we can for survivors.
I also think H.R. 890 highlights fundamental separation of powers issues. The Supreme Court decision giving rise to this legislation -- colloquially known as "Garamendi" -- stems from the strong efforts of our esteemed witness and colleague, Mr. Garamendi, to advance this cause.
That decision reflects a judicial trend with which I take issue -- that in the absence of an affirmative congressional action, courts to date have given excessively broad deference to the President's claim settlement authority.
As a member of this body for nearly thirty years, who has fought for Congress' prerogative on issues ranging from war powers to imposition of sanctions on Iran, I am acutely sensitive to the weight given by courts to executive agreements, which are not treaties and should not be viewed as such.
At a very minimum, courts should be required to balance all relevant equities, including the needs of survivors, the interests of the Executive, and the feasibility of alternative claims fora.
I am well aware of challenges to this bill, including opposition from some mainstream Jewish groups and our European partners. But unless provided evidence that this bill would hurt more than help, these legitimate concerns are outweighed by the very real and immediate need to help survivors.
It is precisely because of the issues that the Garamendi case raises, that it would have been helpful had there been a third panel for this hearing, one in which the lawyers for the plaintiffs and the groups opposed to this legislation, along with the Administration, could have aired their views.
These are not simple issues, especially given that the two bills under consideration are quite different, and a full airing of the perspectives on this legislation would be helpful.
I also regret that I will need to leave shortly for a hearing in Judiciary. While I will try to return, I may miss Leo Bretholz's testimony.
Mr. Bretholz, I reviewed your gripping book on jumping from a deportation train and view you, along with the other survivors here, as a profile in courage.