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Insurers, Jewish groups reach deal on Holocaust-era policies

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LONDON, May 6 (JTA) — Justice may soon come to Holocaust victims and their heirs who took out insurance policies with major European companies in the pre-Holocaust era. In London this week, five of those companies made significant concessions that should open the way to real progress on claims that have lain dormant for five decades. A last-minute breakthrough Thursday at the final meeting of the seven-month-old International Commission on Holocaust Era Claims averted a crisis that seemed certain to plunge the commission, chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, into disarray. After the first full day of talks Wednesday, Jewish and Israeli representatives were speaking gloomily of failure. “We will not be party to a process that is not bringing a genuine measure of justice,” warned Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. “If there is not significant progress, we all agree that we will have to go back to our constituents — the Jewish people and the Holocaust survivors — and tell them the truth; that we thought we had a credible process in place, that this is not the case, and that we will not try to paper over the cracks.” Steinberg had only compliments for the efforts made by Eagleburger but said those efforts were being frustrated by insurance companies who “were repeating the errors of the Swiss banks, offering a token solution, thinking that the Jewish side will grab it and go home.” By Thursday afternoon, however, the outcome of six bruising hours of negotiations with the insurance companies — Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, Allianz Holding of Germany, AXA Group of France and the Winterthur and Zurich insurance firms of Switzerland — transformed Steinberg’s gloomy prognosis. Eagleburger, he reported, had “pulled a rabbit out of a hat” by bluntly stating his intention to go before the media and pronounce the conference a failure. At the end of the final meeting, the insurance companies agreed to key issues that had threatened to torpedo the entire claims process. The first agreement reached was that unpaid policies dating back to the Holocaust era should have interest and present-day currency values factored in when the policies are paid. As a result, a policy worth $3,000 when it was taken out could be worth as much today as $100,000. While the exact amount of the outstanding claims is unknown, insurance industry analysts were quoted as saying it could total between $1 billion and $4 billion. The second stumbling block to be overcome was the insurance companies’ acceptance of liability for policies issued before company assets were nationalized after World War II. The commission also obtained agreement on extending the lifetime of the claims process from one to two years and will institute a “fast-track” policy that will enable aging Holocaust survivors and their heirs to receive money without prejudicing final claims and revaluation of their policies. There was also progress on the issue of financial credits paid to people with insurance policies by the German government as part of the restitution process. The position of the Jewish organizations and Israeli government is that if the new valuation process for policies increases their value, the claimants should be compensated accordingly. A meeting on this issue will take place May 12 in Washington. The commission will also establish a claims process and begin work on an “outreach process” to inform potential insurance claimants that they can file claims. Bobby Brown, Diaspora affairs adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, returned to Jerusalem with a CD-ROM, given to him by Assicurazioni Generali, containing a list of 100,000 unpaid policies from prewar Eastern Europe. Brown plans to pass the information on to officials at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem for analysis. The officials will then pass the names of Jewish policyholders back to the commission for publication. “Eagleburger was marvelous,” Brown said. “It was clear that the commission was on the verge of breakup and I am delighted he achieved this breakthrough on vital issues.” The next meeting of the commission will take place June 23 in Jerusalem.

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