Senate Judiciary Committee Turns Attention to Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims

Among the many unresolved legacies of the Holocaust, some victims held life and other insurance policies that the issuing companies have never honored. On September 17, 2019, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing to address the extent to which efforts to address this problem have worked.

This issue is not new. In 1998, the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) was established by U.S. insurance regulators, six European insurance companies, international Jewish organizations, and Israel to address Holocaust-era insurance claims. ICHEIC, however, was far from an unqualified success. Criticisms of ICHEIC include that the process it followed was not transparent and that it resolved only a small percentage of the outstanding value of unpaid Holocaust-era insurance policies. (ICHEIC offered approximately $306 million to 48,263 claimants.[1] Data from the Congressional Research Service shows that the actual value of the unpaid insurance claims at the end of World War II would be worth between $2 and $25 billion today.) Since the ICHEIC process closed in 2007, claimants primarily pursue claims through the Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO), part of New York’s Department of Financial Services.

At the September 17 hearing, the Committee heard testimony from several witnesses:

Stuart Eizenstat at the 2018 U.S. National Book Festival Wikimedia Commons/Fuzheado; cc License 4.0
  • David Mermelstein, a Holocaust survivor and President of the Holocaust Survivors of Miami-Dade, and Samuel Dubbin, counsel to Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA. Mermelstein and Dubbin argued that the efforts to-date have been inadequate and urged the Committee to consider legislation requiring insurance companies to publish the names of Holocaust-era policyholders, and allowing survivors and their heirs to sue European insurance companies in U.S. court.
  • Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat testified in his personal capacity against legislation creating a federal right of action, arguing that this would undermine prior agreements and that the standard of proof in federal court would be too high for claimants to succeed.
  • Anna Rubin, Director of the HCPO, testified that the legislation would not “achieve the closure our elderly claimants are seeking.” According to ThinkAdvisor, Rubin “said she believes that many of the claims that can be resolved have been resolved, and that claimants who get a chance to sue insurers in court may end up with an exaggerated sense of what might be accomplished through litigation.”
  • Baird Webel, a specialist in financial economics at the Congressional Research Service, testified about the value of the pre-WWII insurance markets.

In light of a 2003 Supreme Court decision holding that California’s Holocaust Victim Insurance Relief Act conflicted with U.S. foreign policy and was therefore preempted, it would take a federal law to address Holocaust-era insurance claims in the U.S.[2] While Chairman Lindsey Graham told POLITICO after the hearing that he wants to take action, it remains to be seen what action, if any, the Senate Judiciary Committee can or will take.

Olga Symeonoglou is an attorney in the DC office of Cultural Heritage Partners. Please contact us if we can help with your art, antiquities, or collectibles.

[1] The total amount offered by ICHEIC includes $61.82 million in humanitarian payments, which were made if there was not sufficient evidence to offer payment on a particular policy. European insurance companies have also paid out claims outside the ICHEIC process using ICHEIC valuation guidelines.

[2] American Ins. Assn. v. Garamendi, 539 U.S. 396, 413 (2003).