At a House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, lawmakers increased pressure on European companies to compensate Holocaust victims who who were taken to their deaths on French trains and those who were denied insurance payouts.
“We will be discussing two situations linked by a common theme: the rights of Holocaust survivors, as American citizens, to bring legal action in federal court,” Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said in her opening statement Wednesday.
The first of the two legislations discussed at the hearing was the Holocaust Rail Justice Act, cosponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
More than 76,000 Jews were transported by the French rail company, SNFC, to their deaths during WWII. Because SNFC is granted jurisdictional immunity under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, they have refused to accept responsibility and pay reparations to the victims’ families. Last year, SNFC bid on a $2.6-billion rail project linking the Florida cities of Orlando and Tampa as part of President Obama’s infrastructure initiative to improve rail service across the United States.
“In the almost 70 years since the end of the war, SNFC has paid no reparations nor been held accountable,” Holocaust survivor Leo Bretholz testified before the committee. “The survivors seek only to have our day in court for the first time. Seventy years is far to long to wait for a company to accept responsibility for the death and suffering it caused.”
“SNFC is now bidding on all kinds of contracts for rail here in the United States and what my bill would do is allow [victims] to have their day in court,” Maloney told TRNS. “By finally forcing SNFC out of the shadows and by precluding SNFC from hiding behind foreign sovereign immunity, the Holocaust Rail Justice Act will finally provide some measures of justice.”
The second legislation discussed at Wednesday’s hearing was the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act, cosponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.).
“It’s a simple bill,” Ros-Lehtinen told TRNS. “It allows the claimants a lawsuit in federal courts…[and] it forces the insurance company to open up their records to which policies they [the victims] had.”
When holocaust victims’ families attempted to claim their life insurance after the war, they were rejected for lacking death certificates, which were not available for those murdered in concentration camps, and other documentation that was lost during deportations.
“It is so outrageous that an insurance company makes a legal contract and all of a sudden decides he is not going to pay and that our government is going to protect them instead of us,” Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone told TRNS. “This is what it is all about: we feel that our government should protect us first.”
If this new legislation is passed, European insurance companies who intend to do business in the U.S will now be liable to lawsuits brought by victims’ family members.
“The bottom line is that all these folks are asking for is for their day in court to be able to present their lawsuit,” Ros-Lehtinen continued. “It doesn’t mean they will win.”