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At a U.S. State Department program on Monday marking the 73rd anniversary of the SS St. Louis voyage, honoree Herbert Karliner—one of the voyage’s surviving passengers—handed department officials a letter urging their so-far absent support of legislation that would aid the restitution of Holocaust-era insurance claims.
The Miami Beach, Fla., resident—who as a child saw his father’s Peiskrescham, Germany, store destroyed by the Nazis during Kristallnacht in November 1938, and whose mother, father, and two sisters were all murdered at Auschwitz—is seeking the payout of an insurance policy from Allianz that in 2011 was valued by economist Sidney J. Zabludoff at $180,000. That claim, according to Karliner’s letter (a copy of which was released by Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation-USA), is among the $20 billion insurance companies such as Allianz and Generali owe Holocaust victims and their families.
While the proposed Tom Lantos Justice for Holocaust Survivors Act (H.R. 890) would, as its language says, “allow Holocaust survivors (or their heirs) to pursue civil actions in federal courts against insurance companies related to World War II-era insurance policies,” the State Department has opposed that legislation.
“The Department of State has sought for many years to resolve claims for restitution or compensation for Holocaust survivors and other victims of the Nazi era through dialogue, negotiation, and cooperation rather than through litigation,” the department said in a memo this year. “H. R. 890, by reopening Holocaust-era insurance cases already resolved through diplomatic agreements, previous foreign state restitution programs or international commissions, and class action settlements in federal court, would, if enacted, conflict with these objectives. It would open the floodgates to litigation, undermine commitments made by the United States, and weaken our ability to achieve such settlements in the future.”
Karliner wrote in his letter that the State Department “pretends to honor me and other Holocaust victims” at events such as the one held Monday, while at the same time “working hard to deny Holocaust survivors our legal rights.”
“Because of this Administration’s actions, I and every other Holocaust survivor are second-class citizens under the law,” he wrote.
In August 2009, State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice Department that the State Department should inform the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that survivors’ lawsuits against Generali conflicted with U.S. foreign policy. Additionally, Stuart Eizenstat—special adviser to the Secretary of State for Holocaust Issues—testified before Congress in 2010 that if H.R. 4596, a predecessor to H.R. 890, were enacted, companies and countries that paid “billions of dollars” in Holocaust-era settlements the U.S. negotiated” would be “open to yet another round of litigation by a new set of lawyers.”
“This is not appropriate,” Eizenstat said. “It would not only impugn the credibility of the United States of America, but it would hold out the expectation to survivors of recoveries in court that would have virtually no chance of being realized.”
At Monday’s State Department event, Eizenstat led a panel discussion “exploring the lessons of the saga of the SS St Louis including issues related to immigration, human rights, racism and America’s proper role in a refugee crisis.” Karliner served on the panel.
In his letter, Karliner—who fought for the U.S. in the Korean War—asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to start “serious engagement” with “those of us in the [Holocaust] survivor leadership who have been in the forefront of advocacy for survivors’ rights.”
“The continuing tragedies facing more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors in this country living near or below poverty, and the continued unjust enrichment enjoyed by global insurers with the Administration’s support, must end,” he wrote.