WASHINGTON — A 90-year-old Holocaust survivor called on the US Senate Tuesday to pass legislation that would help others like him collect the insurance claims of their relatives murdered by the Nazis.
“My parents, my four brothers, my sister, and grandparents were all murdered in Auschwitz,” David Mermelstein told the Senate Judiciary Committee in emotional testimony. “I am the only member of my family to survive.”
The non-partisan Congressional Research Services estimates that unclaimed insurance contracts held by Jews in Europe prior to World War II are worth between $2 billion and $25 billion. But survivors like Mermelstein haven’t been able to get a payout from the insurers because documentation was destroyed during the Holocaust.
“Without action by Congress, the insurance companies will be the heirs of the victims of the Holocaust,” said Mermelstein, who lived in Brooklyn after World War II and now leads a Holocaust survivor group in Miami- Dade County.
“This is unacceptable. There should be no legal peace for the companies until the Holocaust survivors have moral peace.”
The tension is over whether the international system that was set up in 1998 to help survivors get payouts worked or whether Congress needs to set up a new legal avenue for survivors to sue the insurance companies directly to seek justice.
“It’s not working from my point of view,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
“If you believe there’s up to $25 billion of uncompensated claims owed and the current system has generated $700 million then somebody needs to look at something else,” the Judiciary Committee chairman added, citing current payout data adjusted for inflation.
In 1998, US insurance regulators, six European insurers, international Jewish organizations and the State of Israel established the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) system to resolve Holocaust claims.
The claims process ended in 2007, resulting $306 million in payments to 48,263 claimants. An additional $169 million was allocated to a “humanitarian fund” for Holocaust survivors and education.
New York State established its own Holocaust office that helped secure more than $178 million dollars for more than 2,400 claimants from around the world since 1997.
Mermelstein was just 14 years old in Czechoslovakia when he and his family were deported to Auschwitz in windowless cattle cars with two buckets: one for drinking and one for the bathroom, he told the Senate committee Tuesday.
When he returned home after the liberation –“I was lucky” – there was nothing left and no documentation of his father’s insurance policies he purchased to protect his home and business that sold alcohol and cigarettes.
“I remember there was a plaque on our in house that said there was insurance, by (a company named) Generali. My father was a careful businessman, so naturally he would have had insurance to protect his business and his family,” Mermelstein said.
Through the ICHEIC process, Mermelstein got a measly $1,000 “humanitarian payment” and has no right to sue the insurance company, which is an “insult to survivors,” he said.
“I didn’t have the policy,” Mermelstein told The Post. “When they took us away, when we got finally to Auschwitz they brought you into one room, you undressed and left everything there. You went through and you never saw anything again. Nothing. You went out naked. They gave you a cap, a shirt and a pair of pants. For as long as you are going to be camp – one shirt and one pants.”
In 1997, New York state established the Holocaust Claims Processing Office to resolve unpaid insurance policies to Holocaust victims and their heirs – and has since taken the lead for claimants who missed the ICHEIC deadline.
“For 22 years, the state of New York has been at the forefront of ensuring a just resolution of unresolved claims for assets lost due to Nazi persecution,” said Anna B. Rubin, director of the New York’s Holocaust Claims Processing Office which advocates for the survivors free of charge.
Rubin stressed the successes of their efforts and suggested a change to the law may not be as fruitful as advocates would like.
“It behooves us all to manage claimants’ expectations, and not raise an exaggerated sense of what might be accomplished through litigation,” Rubin said.
Congress in the past has rejected previous efforts to allow survivors to sue insurance companies directly in US courts and to force insurance companies to disclose the names of all Holocaust era policyholders. There’s been disagreement among Jewish organizations on this approach.
“The question before us today is whether the ICHEIC process and the ability to submit newly discovered claims to the New York State Department of Financial Services works,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)