Holocaust insurance claims divide the Jewish community

Hardly a day goes by where Renee Firestone isn’t asked by some school, museum, reporter or filmmaker to talk about the Holocaust.

“Somebody has to tell the story,” she said. “I am fortunate enough, at my age, to still be able to walk and talk. So I have to do it.”

Firestone is 88, with pale blue eyes and a warm, Cheshire cat smile. She manages a 24-unit apartment building in Beverly Hills, where she lives with her daughter, Klaire.

Renee was born in Czechoslovakia and was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau at the age of 20, during the last years of the war. Her mother was sent to the gas chambers immediately upon arrival. Her brother was a partisan. Her father actually survived internment, only to die of tuberculosis four months after being liberated.

In the 1990s, the Firestones began seeing stories in the news about litigation aimed at recovering assets from the Holocaust—compensation for slave labor, return of looted art, recovered funds from Swiss bank accounts and, finally, money for insurance claims. In the late 1990s, Renee’s cousin, Fred Jackson, was among the first people in the United States to sue the Italian insurance giant Assicurazioni Generali for payment on an old policy taken out before the war by his mother, whose brother was Renee’s father.

Renee’s father, who owned a textile and tailoring business, was the patriarch of the family, and although no policy documents exist today, Firestone is certain that if her father’s sister had insurance, then he must have it as well.

“Because my father was the adviser of the family,” she said. “For sure the home was insured, and for sure the business was insured.”

In Eastern Europe before the war, insurance and annuities were common investment techniques, especially for Jews, many of whom worked in the industry, and who, in turn, sold policies to Jewish customers. After the war, it was standard practice for insurance companies to pay claims only when relatives could produce the original policy documents and a death certificate. Needless to say, not many Holocaust survivors or their families had either.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that when it came to foreign insurance companies, state law was preempted by federal policy. That was interpreted by lower courts to mean that survivors, like Renee Firestone, cannot sue insurance companies like Generali, because the federal government participated in negotiations with other countries and formed a commission to evaluate claims—a process that many Holocaust survivors were dissatisfied with.

A bill now making its way through Congress would change that, giving survivors the right to settle with insurance companies on their own and, if no settlement can be reached, take them to court. H.R. 890, also known as the Tom Lantos Justice for Holocaust Survivors Act, is written specifically to allow survivors with unpaid insurance claims to sue insurance companies—and perhaps more importantly, would force those same companies to release a full list of unclaimed policies from that era.

The bill is named for Congressman Tom Lantos, a Hungarian Jew who escaped from a Nazi work camp and fought in an underground resistance group. He became friends with Renee Firestone when they both participated in the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Last Days” in 1998. Lantos sponsored an earlier version of the bill, which Klaire Firestone had been lobbying for, in 2007, a year before Lantos died.

This week, a number of Holocaust survivors were planning a Washington, D.C., rally—scheduled for June 7 as of press time—to support the legislation, which was approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March and is scheduled to move to the Judiciary Committee later this month.

“I’ve personally heard from dozens of survivors and children of survivors,” said Sam Dubbin, the Firestones’ lawyer and one of the rally’s organizers. “And in many cases, they’re reaching out not only out of a sense of injustice, but because they’re living in financial desperation.”

But the bill has encountered heavy resistance from the most unlikely of sources: a host of Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

“There are negotiations that have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars toward the needs of survivors worldwide,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of International Jewish Affairs for the AJC. “It’s not at all clear that these negotiations would be able to continue if this bill passed.”

It is a strange divide within the Jewish community, one that is both material and ideological—that is, should victims of the Holocaust be treated as individuals or as a collective? Both sides of the argument have merit, but the substance of those arguments has been masked by ad hominem attacks. Each side is accusing the other of being driven by greed.

“We don’t think their heart is in the right place,” Baker said, speaking of a group of survivors that are in favor of the legislation. “It’s more pocket book than heart.”

Renee Firestone, meanwhile, becomes enraged when talking about organizations like the AJC: “After what we went through—how lucky we were to even survive, and how we struggled to again become human beings. And then our own people are stopping us from getting what belongs to us, what’s ours?”

“There are multiple interests at stake, and there is a tension,” said Holocaust expert Michael Berenbaum, a professor of Jewish studies at American Jewish University. “It does not bring about the finest discourse.”