By Lauren Markoe
Religion News Service
WASHINGTON (RNS) A group of Holocaust survivors went to Capitol Hill on Wednesday (Nov. 16) to push Congress for the right to sue European insurance companies in U.S. courts for denying claims stemming from World War II.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and backed by 52 others members of the House, would allow survivors to pursue such suits despite opposition from the U.S. State Department and prominent American Jewish groups.
Opponents of the proposed Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act of 2011 say such lawsuits undermine agreements already reached between the U.S. and Germany to compensate the victims, and the executive branch's power to make foreign policy.
They also note that the suits have been discouraged by the U.S. courts.
But the elderly Holocaust survivors who testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Wednesday said they need access to the courts to gain what was stolen from survivors.
"We are not beggars," said Californian Renee Firestone, who at 19 was deported from Czechoslovakia to the Auschwitz death camp, and lost nearly her whole family in the Holocaust. "Our families paid for these (insurance) policies with the sweat from their brows."
Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the foreign affairs committee, argued previous international agreements to compensate Holocaust victims had shortchanged many, and that the dying generation of survivors -- now mostly in their 80s and 90s -- had a right to pursue what is theirs through their own court system.
She noted that 84 percent of claims made through the international commission to compensate victims, which was disbanded in 2007, had been denied. One in four Holocaust survivors in the United States lives in poverty, she added, citing a study from a Jewish welfare group.
"We cannot deny these individuals the justice they deserve after they have suffered through so much and waited so long," Ros-Lehtinen said. "We cannot allow these companies to continue to profit from the horror of the Holocaust."
Also under fire Wednesday was the French national railroad, known as the SNCF, for transporting more than 76,000 Jews and others to Nazi concentration camps. A separate bill, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., would allow victims to sue the rail company, which still exists.
Cramming the elderly, disabled and children into cattle cars, where many of them died without food, water or sanitation, SNCF charged the Nazis per person and per kilometer. Earlier this year, the company apologized for its wartime actions.
Leo Bretholz, 90, told the committee of the night in 1942 when he managed to pry open the bars and jump from a SNCF cattle car after an old woman said he had to escape to tell the world what was happening. Of the 1,000 people on the train, he was one of only five to survive the Holocaust.
"SNCF willingly collaborated with the Nazis," Bretholz, of Baltimore, told the committee. "In the almost 70 years since the end of the war, SNCF has paid no reparations nor been held accountable."
SNCF did not respond to an email request for comment.
The two bills have a tough road ahead.
Similar bills have languished in Congress. And major Jewish groups -- including B'nai B'rith and the American Jewish Committee -- sent a letter to Congress last year opposing a similar insurance bill, expressing concern that it would interfere with other efforts to win compensation for survivors.