The State Department, under the administrations of both Barack Obama and George W. Bush, has forcefully fought against the proposal of letting Holocaust survivors press claims in court against European insurance companies, arguing that action would weaken a 2000 reparations agreement reached between the United States and Germany that led to $300 million supposedly made available to death-camp survivors and their heirs in the form of insurance payments.
Some survivors, having gone through unimaginable horrors at the hands of Germans, have not seen a penny from the America they put their hopes in. One survivor and naturalized American citizen, Renee Firestone, 87, says she has been stonewalled by her own country in her effort to find out what became of an Italian insurance policy taken out by her father who died in the Holocaust, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
"What's so painful is that we can see they're just waiting for all of us to die," Firestone said.
Hundreds of claims such as Firestone's have initiated a lobbying campaign in Washington and has created a divide among Jewish groups. One side wants their day in court; the other doesn't want to undermine the 2000 agreement.
In March, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., introduced legislation forcing insurers to divulge the names of Holocaust-era policyholders, allowing survivors and heirs to press claims in U.S. courts.
Miami lawyer Sam Dubbin, who works with a number of Holocaust survivors, said Ros-Lehtinen's proposal is "the last, best hope" for turning around what he says is a historical injustice. He said the claims process set in place by the 2000 agreement with Germany was rife with abuse and money paid out from it represented only a small fraction of the $20 billion in current dollars owed on Holocaust-era insurance policies.
The majority of the claims haven't been paid out, Dubbin said, while many survivors are living in poverty in cities around the United States. "It's an utter disgrace," he said.
"The whole thing saddens me," Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate who is perhaps the most well-known Holocaust survivor, said of the rift over the insurance benefits. "I don't know how or why this has happened, but the survivors should be helped however we can."