MIAMI A decade ago, 100 Holocaust survivors and their relatives gathered in Miami Beach to implore state lawmakers to assist in recovering proceeds from life insurance policies bought in Europe before World War II.
The insurers insisted on death certificates for proof.
This morning, help may finally be on the way from Congress.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami is filing legislation that would give untold victims of Nazi concentration camps a legal right to sue European insurers in U.S. courts.
The Republican lawmaker said European insurance giants "unjustly enriched" themselves with money owed decades ago to Holocaust victims, almost all of whom were denied payments because they couldn't provide proof of their deaths.
"What death certificates were issued at Auschwitz?" Ros-Lehtinen said in an interview. "None. Shame on these insurance companies. If they have nothing to hide, then this is an opportunity to show they have nothing to hide."
Her proposal would force international insurers such as German-based Allianz AG and Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, which sold the bulk of Jewish policies, to open their secret books on hundreds of thousands of policyholders dating from before the war.
Generali declined to comment; Allianz did not return a call.
Passage is far from certain because it puts Congress on a collision course with the power of the presidency in foreign matters.
The legislation conflicts with a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision dealing with a California law that required any insurer doing business in that state to disclose information about all life insurance policies sold in Europe between 1920 and 1945. In a 5-4 vote, the justices ruled that national - not state - interests prevailed, setting the stage for voluntary settlements rather than litigation or sanctions.
Ros-Lehtinen's bill comes amid a decade-long global debate over compensation due to Holocaust survivors and their relatives. Emotions, politics and money have dominated the dispute, making it hard to strike a compromise.
For instance, a powerful Holocaust commission, supported by two U.S. presidents and the European insurers, has doled out about $270 million to 17,000 Jewish victims with confirmed life insurance policy claims. Yet some experts say that payout, formally completed this month, is a fraction of the billions of dollars in outstanding Jewish policies.
Another example: An unprecedented class-action settlement between Generali and a few thousand Jewish policyholders was approved in February by a New York federal judge, who himself admitted it was "not perfect" but might be the only means for victims to recover damages.
Thomas Weiss, a Miami Beach doctor who did not join the settlement - calling it a "sham" - is hopeful about Ros-Lehtinen's bill. Weiss' father lost his wife in the Nazi camps and was turned away by Generali after the war when he tried to collect on a $50,000 policy. "We never got a fair shake," he said.
Ros-Lehtinen said she believes there will be bipartisan support in Congress, saying it's a "heartstring" issue that should win over "fiscal hawks" concerned about the potential cost to the insurance industry.
She has support from South Florida's congressional delegation, including co-sponsor Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Delray Beach. Florida's Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson's staff said he supports the disclosure part, but is reviewing the rest of the bill.
One thing that could boost its prospects is hidden in a German archive that might open in months. It contains tens of millions of records on Holocaust victims, including insurance and other personal documents.
The archive, managed by the International Red Cross to trace the history of victims, falls under the authority of the United States, Israel and nine other countries. Most have formally supported full disclosure, but some have not weighed in.
The trove of records could help bolster claims by Holocaust survivors and their heirs against Generali, Allianz and other European insurers in U.S. courts.
Advocates for Holocaust victims said the disclosure of such records is long overdue.
Opening the German archive will be the subject of a House hearing today in Washington. Testifying: Auschwitz survivor David Schaecter of Miami.
"It's been 62 years since the atrocities, and for 62 years they have kept this information away from us," said Schaecter, 77, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust. "The survivors are dying. Why not let us know? We need to die in peace."
Miami attorney Samuel Dubbin, who represented Weiss and others in their legal battles with Generali, is accompanying Schaecter to Washington.
"The impact of these records could be huge," Dubbin said. "There are potentially hundreds of thousands of insurance policies that went unpaid. Why shouldn't these transactions be accounted for fully?"