AVENTURA, Fla. -- When David Schaecter was a child in Slovakia in the 1930s, he counted more than 100 people in his extended family. By the end of World War II, he alone survived. The rest had been killed in Nazi concentration camps or by roving SS death squads.
Schaecter lost not only his family, but all they owned, including life insurance covering his murdered relatives. And as time runs out on aging Holocaust survivors, some are trying to recover insurance policies that were not honored by Nazi-era companies, which could be worth at least $25 billion altogether in today's dollars, according to the Holocaust Survivors' Foundation USA.
The survivors want to take insurance companies to court in the U.S. to recover the money, but it would take an act of Congress to allow it.
For nearly two decades, the foundation members have tried and failed to gain access to U.S. courts.
"This is an insult to humanity," said Schaecter, 90, president of the organization and a survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. "I think they are trying to sweep it under the carpet. The fact is, we are a dying breed. There are so few of us left."
As another season of high holy days concludes for Jews with Yom Kippur on Wednesday, the Holocaust survivors group is optimistic that a recent hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the stolen insurance issue may lead to change.
They gathered this week at Mo's Bagels and Deli in the Miami suburb of Aventura to talk it over.
"This is our last hope," said David Mermelstein, also 90, who leads a Miami-Dade chapter of the group. "How can a Holocaust survivor be a second-class citizen under American law?"
The answer is complicated.
The Nazis under Adolf Hitler's "final solution" killed an estimated 6 million Jews and others deemed undesirable by the German government, including gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled. It began slowly once Hitler rose to power, with Jews prevented from certain jobs and schools, and then the 1938 attack by Nazi gangs on Jewish homes, stores and synagogues known as Kristallnacht, the "night of broken glass."
Since the war's end, the German government has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in reparations to Holocaust survivors and other victims of the Third Reich. The International Commission on Holocaust Era Claims, formed in the 1990s with U.S. backing, has paid out $305 million on these issues, plus $200 million in humanitarian aid.
Germany, and insurance companies such as Munich-based Allianz SE and Italy's Assicurazioni Generali, say the commission's actions should provide finality — "legal peace," in the terminology of the deal — on the insurance claims.
They also say they will repay verifiable claims, but verification is difficult given the passage of time and the wartime destruction of so many records. The companies have demanded original paperwork, such as death certificates, that were simply not available after the war.
The insurers had close Nazi ties. A former Allianz chairman in 1933 became Hitler's economics minister. The company today is one of the world's largest insurers, and insists it will not shy away from the past.
"While we cannot undo any aspect of our company's history, we can learn from it and work to make sure the horrors of the Holocaust are never again repeated," Anja Rechenberg, Allianz's corporate responsibility spokesperson, said in an email. "To this day, Allianz continues to pay any verifiably unsettled claims."
Mermelstein recalls as a child his parents having a plaque in their house labeled "Generali", the name of the Italian insurer with which they had a policy. He also recalls an insurance agent coming around to collect the premiums.
"Of course we have no documents for obvious reasons," he said.
Trieste-based Generali said it's committed to paying claims whenever possible.
"Generali's long-standing commitment to resolving claims of victims of the Holocaust and their heirs is well established and unequivocally remains in place today," the company said in an email.
In Congress, bills have been filed over the years to allow American Holocaust survivors access to the U.S. courts. None have passed, and other Jewish groups have opposed them. These groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee, have decided instead to support the claims arrangement created in the 1990s.
In addition to permitting lawsuits against insurance companies, many of the bills would have required the companies to disclose lists of policies held by Jews before World War II.
The survivors say given the efficiency and meticulous record-keeping of the Third Reich, it's hard to believe such lists don't exist.
"If you know German bureaucracy, there isn't a 'T' that hasn't been crossed. They kept a real strict record,' said Vera Karliner, whose husband Herb was on the ship named the St. Louis that was full of Jewish refugees but was turned away from the U.S. in 1939. Herb Karliner, now 93, survived the Holocaust.
As the aging Holocaust survivors await congressional action on their long-ago stolen insurance policies, many are in frail health, in need of assistance for things like prescription drugs and medical needs. All of them say they simply want justice.
Their lawyer, Sam Dubbin, says it's time for lawmakers to do something.
"Because the current law is a result of court decisions based on misleading and unprecedented executive branch positions, only Congress can provide the necessary remedy — legislation to require the companies to publish policy information and to provide a clear right of action for claimants in U.S. courts," Dubbin said.
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