Problems with insurance payouts leave Holocaust heirs in the dark

WASHINGTON, Aug. 12 (JTA) — Holocaust survivors and their heirs waiting for payments on Nazi-era insurance policies are less sure than ever how long their wait may be.

European insurers involved in the issue have been accused of not paying claims expeditiously — and now it appears the issue could wind up again in court.

The International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, known as ICHEIC, was created in 1998 by insurance companies and Jewish organizations to solve the problem of insurance policies, dating back to the prewar years, that were never paid to policyholders or their heirs. Faced with lawsuits totaling billions of dollars from policyholders, the insurers agreed to participate in the commission as a means of settling those claims.

But the commission’s work has not been as speedy as many had hoped. While thousands of former Nazi-era slave and forced laborers have begun to receive payments from Austrian and German compensation funds, survivors who filed insurance claims and were hoping for a swift payment appear to be in for a long haul.

Congress also is exerting pressure to spur the process along. Earlier this month, Reps. Henry Waxman (D- Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D- N.Y.) introduced a bill to require all insurance companies operating in the United States to disclose the names on Holocaust-era policies.

The lawmakers say few names have been published, and with less than six months left before the January 31, 2002, filing deadline, the majority of claims remain unresolved because claimants cannot identify the company holding their assets.

Much of the anger of Jewish organizations and ICHEIC has been leveled at Allianz, Germany’s leading insurer, which signed onto the agreement but has yet to pay any claims.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, chairman of ICHEIC, publicly accused Allianz of failing to make good on its commitments to the commission. In coming weeks, Eagleburger is expected to report on the commission’s status to the U.S. judge who last year dismissed pending cases against German insurance companies.

But the cases were dismissed conditionally — that is, only if the companies were negotiating and implementing a mechanism to resolve claims — and many believe that Eagleburger will tell the judge the companies have not complied with the conditions. That would allow the cases to be reinstated.

The World Jewish Congress, which is represented on ICHEIC by the WJC’s executive director, Elan Steinberg, plans to ask the judge to impose sanctions on German insurance companies that are not complying.

“The companies want legal closure, but they really want economic peace,” Steinberg said. “They’ll get neither.”

State insurance regulators also could bar German companies not in compliance from doing business in their states.

The German companies, which have committed to pay $300 million, have asked to have their expenses paid and have refused to be audited or provide lists of claims.

Companies also say there is no proper documentation on many of the submitted claims.

“These are all kinds of excuses not to pay,” charged Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. “Their behavior is disgraceful.”

At the end of the five-year ICHEIC process, Steinberg still expects that $650 to $700 million will have been paid out for settlements.

ICHEIC, too, has come in for criticism, accused of using its money inefficiently. According to internal ICHEIC documents cited in a class-action lawsuit and a May newspaper report, the organization has spent more than $30 million for salaries, hotel bills and newspaper ads, while the five companies that fund the commission have distributed only $3 million to claimants.

There also have been charges that the commission’s system is not working correctly, since the pressure on the German companies has so far had mixed results.

But Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, said the terms of ICHEIC’s agreements with the insurance companies do not need to be renegotiated.

“We need enforcement,” he said.

Eagleburger has acknowledged some of ICHEIC’s shortcomings, but said that ICHEIC had to spend nearly $9 million on newspaper ads to inform potential claimants, as well as additional sums to search Holocaust-era archives.

Steinberg was quick to say “the problem is not ICHEIC, the problem is the German insurance companies.”

ICHEIC was created following survivors’ claims that European insurers refused payments on policies taken out by Jews who died in the Holocaust. It was founded by American and European insurance regulators, Jewish organizations and European insurance companies with the goal of resolving insurance disputes quickly and fairly, and in hopes of avoiding lengthy battles in U.S. courts.

The five participating insurers are Allianz of Germany, Italy’s Assicurazioni Generali, AXA Group of France, and Switzerland’s Winterthur and Zurich.

These companies wrote about 35 percent of the life, homeowner and dowry insurance policies in Europe between 1930 and 1945. Generali was one of the largest insurers of Jews in prewar Eastern Europe, and has paid out nearly $10 million in claims so far.

Insurance policies were a “savings device,” Steinberg says, and they played an important social role. Many middle- and lower-class Jewish families took out these “poor man’s Swiss bank accounts.”

Studies show that Jews were three times as likely to own policies than non-Jews, Steinberg said.

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