LOS ANGELES, Oct. 17 (JTA) After nearly 60 years of petitions and a decade of litigation, many survivors and their descendants seeking to collect on Holocaust-era life insurance policies have had their hopes dashed. Last week, a New York federal judge threw out the cases against Assicurazoni Generali, one of Europe’s largest insurers. In their lawsuits against Generali, plaintiffs in California, New York, Florida and Wisconsin charged that the Italian company had stonewalled their claims for decades or fobbed them off with meager settlement offers. Over the years, 20 class-action and individual suits against Generali had been combined and assigned to U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey. In his Oct. 14 ruling, Mukasey dismissed all of the cases, ruling that the president and executive branch of government rather than state or federal courts had jurisdiction over Holocaust-era claims against foreign companies or governments. In earlier preliminary rulings, Mukasey had appeared to favor the survivors’ cases, but the legal playing field tilted last year when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a pro-survivor California law as unconstitutional meddling by a state in foreign affairs. The U.S. government, Generali and other European insurers have maintained all along that all claims should be submitted and resolved through the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims. However, the commission has been under persistent fire from survivors and their lawyers, who have charged it in the media and lawsuits with foot-dragging and serving as a front for the insurance companies. Mukasey himself, in an earlier statement, described the commission as a “company store” for the insurance companies. The judge’s ruling was met with considerable bitterness. Ebi Gabor, a plaintiff who had not heard of the court decision, described the legal blow as “very, very painful.” The 77-year-old Holocaust survivor from Hungary said, “We have waited for 60 years for the insurance payments due us, and every year we have filled out more papers. This is a big shock.” Manny Steinberg, 79, said, “When I was a young child, the Generali agent came to my father’s ladies custom tailoring store in Radom, Poland, every two weeks to collect $2 or $3 in insurance premiums,” he said. “And while we were in camp, my father kept reminding me, ‘If we get out, there is an insurance policy waiting.’ ” Responding to the court ruling, Steinberg, who spent six years in ghettos and concentration camps, said, “We could use the insurance money, but that’s not the main point. I am so disappointed that Holocaust survivors are being dragged down once again.” William Shernoff, a Los Angeles-area attorney who over the last decade has filed suits on behalf of 18 survivor families, described the ruling as “a sad day for justice, when Holocaust survivors are denied access to American courts in their lifelong struggle to collect on life insurance policies long overdue from Generali.” In a statement, Shernoff denounced the argument that his lawsuits interfered with the foreign relations authority of the executive branch. “Holocaust survivors cannot understand how their simple lawsuits against a private company can possibly interfere with President Bush’s ability to conduct foreign affairs with Italy. They think that’s absurd,” Shernoff declared. He vowed to appeal the judge’s decision to higher courts. By contrast, Kenneth Bialkin, the New York lead attorney for Generali and a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations hailed the ruling during a phone interview as “sound and sensitive, in Generali’s view.” He added that “Generali’s position has been very honorable and it will continue to process all claims, through established” International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims “channels. Generali has not changed its intention to pay all justified claims.” In a statement following Mukasey’s decision, Christopher Carnicelli, Generali USA’s CEO, said that the ruling “reflects the view that courts are not the place to revisit the tragedies of the Holocaust. “Nonetheless, Generali wishes to stress that it will remain morally committed to making offers of payments to claimants on its Holocaust-era insurance policies in accordance with its participation in the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.” Mara Rudman, the commission’s chief operating officer, who had earlier acknowledged that “all sides had greatly underestimated the complexity and timeline of settling claims,” said the commission remained the most effective way of processing claims, without any cost to the survivors. Rudman, who stated a few months ago that the commission was pushing Generali to speed up its claim processing, said the commission was planning to wind up its work by the end of next year. So far, the commission has extended settlement offers totaling nearly $100 million, according to Rudman, a figure Shernoff termed completely inadequate.
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.