TALLAHASSEE — Rene Hammond was 18 when the Nazis hauled her family off to Auschwitz, where her parents perished. She and her sister later managed to escape from slave labor in a munitions factory, but they lost everything, including any documentation of her family's furniture business, insurance or bank accounts.
"We have no papers," said Hammond, 87, of Pinellas Park. "They gave us a prisoner dress, wooden shoes and a blanket … That's all we had."
Hammond's efforts to document her lost life are echoed by countless Holocaust survivors, and is why the state is expanding a program that seeks reparations for the estimated 14,000 to 16,000 survivors and their beneficiaries living in Florida.
A bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott (HB 913) will allow the state to help Holocaust survivors seek restitution for Nazi-confiscated bank accounts, art and property. While the odds of recovering money or property remain long, it's the "next step" the state should take, said CFO Jeff Atwater.
"Florida has the largest population of Holocaust survivors and relatives on the entire planet with the exception of the state of Israel," Atwater said. "We think we owe it to this generation to work as fast as we can on their behalf."
Tracking property stolen by the Nazis may sound like the plot of a spy thriller, but this is bureaucratic sleuthing. The actual task will come down to tedious research and outreach. And there's no increased funding for the expanded role. The state budgets $308,007 for its existing insurance claims program and to provide other assistance.
"We'll work with people who have been successful in doing this in the past," said Lynn Grossman, the state Holocaust claims coordinator with the Department of Financial Services. "It's not insurmountable."
In some cases, discovering lost property has been a matter of luck. In Tallahassee, a 16th century painting stolen during the war was reunited with its owner in 2012 after being discovered at the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science.
But more often, tracking assets is a long, drawn-out process, one all too familiar to advocates and Holocaust survivors.
In 1998, Florida became one of the first states in the country to enact a Holocaust Victims Insurance Act, aiming to help survivors apply for restitution.
The state has been successful in getting 22 Florida banks and institutions to waive wire transfer fees on reparation payments. But helping Holocaust survivors recoup any funds or insurance claims from bank accounts or family insurance policies has been a 70-year struggle.
In the late 1990s, then-state Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson helped set up an organization known as the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC), which included Jewish organizations, European insurance companies and state insurance commissioners, to gain restitution for Holocaust victims.
ICHEIC secured offers of $306 million worldwide for more than 48,000 survivors and committed $169 million for humanitarian programs. But because so many cases could not be documented, 34 million survivors were simply given $1,000 flat payments.
Holocaust-era European insurance companies "are still holding billions of dollars that don't belong to them," said Jack Rubin, who is on the executive board of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation. "They're waiting for Holocaust survivors to die out"
Rubin's own efforts illustrate the problems of gaining restitution. Now an 85-year-old Boynton Beach grandfather, Rubin was a teenager when his parents and a sister were murdered in Auschwitz. He managed to survive, but he has yet to recover insurance money from policies he knows his parents and grandparents invested in for years.
He remembers a sign on his father's general store saying it was insured by Generali Moldavia, and even the name of the insurance agent. Florida's financial services office told him he could apply for an insurance claim. "It took years for ICHEIC to process the claim, but Generali turned down the request," he said. ICHEIC stopped making payments in 2007.
Getting help from Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services, which serves the Tampa area and receives state funding for its Holocaust Survivor program, has been crucial for Hammond. The agency has helped Hammond apply for compensation and she receives a small pension from Germany paid under the Program for Former Slave and Forced Laborers.
"We lost our freedom," she said. "We lost life as it was."