House pressures French rail, European companies on compensation for Nazi survivors

"It pains me to say that survivors of one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century continue to feel the pain of the Nazis' brutality and oppression," Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said in her prepared statement. "These lingering injustices stem from those who sought to profit from the abuse of innocent victims and that took advantage of circumstance to enrich themselves while others suffered."

One bill, the Holocaust Rail Justice Act, would give U.S. district courts jurisdiction to hear civil cases against Société Nationale des Chemins de fer français (SNCF), France's state-owned rail company, for the company's role in transporting more than 75,000 Jews to concentration camps in the early 1940s.

SNCF has claimed sovereign immunity from U.S.-based suits, but the bill, H.R. 1193, would prevent sovereign immunity from being raised as a defense in U.S. cases.

The company has only recently apologized for its actions in World War II, and some have openly argued that this is an attempt to win rail contracts in the U.S.

"Its officials claim that they were forced to do the things they did," Ros-Lehtinen said of the company. "And yet, SNCF has not contributed to post-war reparations to victims of the brutality of the Nazis. And when Holocaust survivors in the United States brought a class action suit against SNCF, the rail company hid again, this time, behind the foreign sovereign immunity, claiming that SCNF is an instrument of the French government and should not be held liable."

H.R. 890, the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act, would allow Holocaust survivors to use state laws to seek compensation from European-based insurance companies operating in those states in cases where they might have unfulfilled insurance claims. Ros-Lehtinen explained that in pre-war Europe, some sought to protect their financial futures by buying policies insuring them from the Nazis, but said survivors had little luck in validating their claims years later.

"They were turned away for lacking proper documentation, and barred from accessing the companies' records," she said. "The insurance companies refused to honor policies without documentation that they alone possessed, and refused to disclose to claimants."

Ros-Lehtinen also added that an international commission established to examine these claims has so far proved ineffective.

A spokesman for Ros-Lehtinen said there were no immediate plans to mark up these bills. However, bipartisan support was evident in today's hearing; ranking member Howard Berman (D-Calif.) spoke in favor of the insurance bill, and said finding some way to help get victims compensation outweighs the opposition from Europe.

"I am well aware of challenges to this bill, including opposition from some mainstream Jewish groups and our European partners," he said. "But unless provided evidence that this bill would hurt more than help, these legitimate concerns are outweighed by the very real and immediate need to help survivors."

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