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Deadline extended for Holocaust claims

WASHINGTON, Sept. 7 (JTA) — A deadline for making Holocaust-era insurance claims is being extended until the end of the year because additional policyholder names recently were made public. Lawrence Eagleburger, the chairman of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, said 120,000 names will be added within the next two months to a Web site that now has 450,000 names on a list of unpaid insurance policies from Nazi-era Germany. Almost all of the more than 500,000 unpaid insurance policies belonged to Jews in Nazi Germany. The new names come from portfolios in Eastern Europe, Italy and Switzerland. “I’m confident that we have as close to a complete list as you are likely to get,” said Eagleburger, a former U.S. secretary of state. Eagleburger said extending the deadline would “allow ample time for as many eligible claimants as we can alert to file claims.” More than 2,600 offers have been made so far to benefactors and their families, amounting to $35 million. In addition, more than $7.5 million has been distributed directly from insurance companies, based on contacts descendants have made through ICHEIC. The complete list includes anyone who may have had a life-insurance policy of any kind between 1920 and 1945 and who is thought to have suffered any form of racial, religious or political persecution during the Holocaust. The deadline for applications has already been extended several times. Eagleburger said he hoped that the commission’s work would be finished within a year. “Please understand that this has never been done before,” he said. “We have had to create, from nothing, this system and deal with a whole list of questions no one has had to deal with before.” That includes people inquiring about claims that lacked documentation. “We were inventing the wheel as we went along,” he said. Eagleburger stressed that many of the policies already have been claimed, but he said the commission chose to include all possible names and investigate any inquiries. Names may also be duplicates with minor differences in spelling, he noted. The announcement about the deadline extension, published on the Internet last week, elicited questions from around the world. Preparation and publication of the list was made possible by an October 2002 agreement with German insurance companies, negotiated in part by the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The first list of policyholders was published in April 2000. ICHEIC, founded in 1998 by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, has had some problems in the past two years. Eagleburger threatened to resign last year after difficulty securing cooperation from German insurance companies. Congressional representatives and others also have chastised Eagleburger and the commission for its slow progress, making note of the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors still alive. And last month, attorney Neal Sher, former chief of staff of the commission’s Washington office, was disbarred. A year earlier, the commission investigated Sher for unauthorized reimbursements of ICHEIC travel expenses. It is unclear whether Sher’s disbarment is related to the ICHEIC investigation. He resigned and paid restitution last June. Attempts to contact Sher, a former Nazi hunter with the Justice Department, were unsuccessful. But he told the Forward that he would not fight the disbarment because “the cost would be absolutely prohibitive.” In a related development last week, more than a hundred of California’s largest financial institutions said they would waive wire-transfer fees for Holocaust-restitution payments. The payments, which come mainly from Germany, average $350 per month. With banks generally charging per-transfer handling fees of $10-$40, such fees can add up to 10 percent of the monthly checks to Holocaust survivors and their families. The agreement by 108 California banks, credit unions, savings-and-loans offices and broker-dealers to eliminate the fees was announced by State Treasurer Phil Angelides, who had requested the voluntary waiver from 170 leading financial institutions. California is home to the nation’s second-largest Holocaust-survivor community, according to Bet Tzedek, which provides free legal services to indigent survivors. (JTA correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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