Justice, Before It's Too Late

By Nesse Godin, president of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Friends of Greater Washington, Esther Finder, president of The Generation After and Mira Silberg, president of the Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, in Washington (THE WASHINGTON POST, 22/12/07):

Holocaust survivors, their descendants and loved ones were heartened by recent Post coverage of the tragically inadequate resources available to Holocaust survivors in their last years ["Holocaust Survivors, Heirs Fight On for Compensation," news story, Nov. 25]. Such coverage is long overdue. Serious issues require attention from policymakers and the media before time runs out -- as it soon will for elderly survivors who have suffered too much already.

Among the 174,000 survivors still alive in the United States, more than 80,000 are too poor to provide for their daily needs. According to the Jewish Federation system, one-quarter of the survivors in the United States live at or below the poverty level, and another quarter live on the edge of poverty, struggling to survive on fixed incomes and unable to pay for basic necessities such as food, rent and medicine, much less home care, dental work, eyeglasses or hearing aids. This does not even begin to address the problems unique to aging Holocaust survivors, such as finding health-care professionals who can deal with the long-term effects of starvation, beatings, disease and other traumas that many endured in the ghettos and concentration camps.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars in "restitution funds" still sit, untouched, in banks. This is money that could and should be used to alleviate much of the survivors' suffering. U.S. District Judge Edward Korman in Brooklyn has refused to release more than $300 million from the 1998 Swiss bank settlement, money that is unlikely, nearly 10 years after the landmark agreement, to be matched to dormant Swiss accounts. Why aren't some of these millions being used to meet the pressing needs of survivors here and abroad? Similarly, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a New York-based group founded in 1951 that was cited in the Post article as being concerned about meeting survivors' needs, sits on nearly $1 billion that could be used to help survivors. It has spent more than $200 million in the past decade on projects unrelated to survivors and their welfare. The Jewish claims conference has also never fully accounted for or disclosed information about properties it obtained after German reunification that were owned by Jews before World War II, which are estimated to be worth billions more.

Congress should have investigated these issues long ago. Lawmakers can and should act to help survivors more than 60 years after the end of World War II. Legislation pending in the House, the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act of 2007 (H.R. 1746), would require global insurance companies to honor policies that they marketed to Jews before the war but that they failed to pay when their customers seemingly disappeared. More than 800,000 such policies in force in 1938 remain unpaid; their value is about $17 billion. A commission funded by the insurers between 1998 and 2007, known as ICHEIC, repaid less than 3 percent of the outstanding policies and values, yet participants called that a success. Even more troubling, the insurance companies have demanded proof of policy ownership from us or our parents and grandparents, who were imprisoned in death and concentration camps, but these same companies refuse to open their archives or publish all the names of known policyholders from that period.

All survivors and heirs should be able to recover their families' unpaid insurance proceeds from policies that were paid for with real money. No business should be able to keep such unjust enrichment. Survivors and their descendants should receive what they are owed, and this injustice should weigh on all our consciences until it is resolved.

We hope last month's Post story is the beginning of a thorough investigation into issues that have long been ignored by the media but that are of immeasurable consequence for survivors and their families, all of whom deserve moral and legal justice as soon as possible.