At an office in Washington, staffers are making final preparations to wrap up a nine-year effort to provide a measure of justice for the holders and heirs of unpaid Holocaust-era insurance claims.
The International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance claims, known as ICHEIC, held its final meeting at a Washington hotel March 20. By month’s end the commission’s office will be shuttered, most of its staff dismissed and its records shipped off to storage at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
ICHEIC was established in 1998 in response to mounting pressure on European insurers to make good on insurance policies held by victims of the Nazis. Within the world of Holocaust restitution, it’s the first such organization to declare its work completed and go out of business.
In nearly nine years of operations, the commission received more than 90,000 claims and awarded compensation of $306 million to just over 48,000 claimants, according to a summary presented at the meeting.
Approximately $174 million more was disbursed to a humanitarian fund to support Holocaust education and needy survivors.
The final meeting provided an opportunity for self-congratulation by the commission, which includes five European insurance companies and representatives of Jewish groups, the State of Israel and several U.S. state insurance commissioners.
In concluding remarks, many noted the unprecedented nature of the effort and the measure of justice provided to Holocaust victims, most of whom did not have enough documentation of their insurance policies to press their claims in court.
“I feel that we have accomplished some measure of justice,” Roman Kent, one of two survivor representatives on the commission, told JTA. “A complete measure of justice? No. But I say we accomplished some measure of justice for tens of thousands of survivors.”
In interviews with JTA, commissioners pointed out the significant obstacles they face! d in sec uring a total of $550 million from European insurers. Among them were difficulties in valuing insurance claims more than a half-century old and denominated in currencies no longer in circulation, and establishing mechanisms for evaluating claims against scores of insurance companies across Europe, some of which no longer exist.
As he has in the past, Commission Chairman Lawrence Eagleburger said Tuesday that his stewardship of ICHEIC was far more challenging than his experience negotiating with the Soviets as secretary of state under the first President Bush.
“ICHEIC did not reinvent the wheel,” said Bobby Brown, who participated in the commission as a representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel. “ICHEIC invented the wheel.”
But like other efforts at Holocaust restitution, ICHEIC has come under withering criticism.
Some have charged that the commission was more concerned with settling the insurance issue than in providing justice for elderly survivors. Among the evidence the critics point to is the commission’s membership, which included companies that sought to shield their records from scrutiny.
Critics further claim that the commission was shrouded in secrecy — its meetings were closed to the public — and slow to provide information on its activities. Audits to ensure that companies complied with ICHEIC procedures, some of them conducted years ago, were posted online only in recent days.
Even ICHEIC concedes it got off to a rocky start. Early meetings were said to have been highly contentious, and several newspapers reported evidence of wasteful spending by the commission. At one point, administrative costs far outstripped payments to survivors, though in the end only 17 percent of the commission’s $550 million budget went for expenses.
Still, ICHEIC’s detractors are unsparing in their criticism. Central among them is the allegation that ICHEIC failed to secure full disclosure of company records from the period. Those re! cords pr esumably would have included lists of policyholders’ names, lists that have historical value in themselves but also might have led more people to file claims.
“The lists needed to be the linchpin of the claims process,” said Daniel Kadden, a former staffer at the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner who has followed the process closely.
ICHEIC “would handle a claim if the claim was made, but they weren’t going to empower the public and potential claimants with information that might suggest the existence of a policy,” he said.
ICHEIC relied on the insurance companies to scour their own records, then subjected the findings to two rounds of audits. In testimony to the U.S. Congress in 2003, Eagleburger said ICHEIC had been “largely successful” at procuring the names, an assertion he repeated in an interview Tuesday with JTA.
“Some of the companies it took longer and it took more effort because they were more stubborn and more reluctant,” Eagleburger said. “But in the end, every company, as far as I know from everything we saw, we were able to decide they had done what we asked them to do.”
ICHEIC ultimately published more than 500,000 policyholder names, the vast majority of them from Germany. The comparatively fewer names published from other countries with appreciable Jewish populations owes in part to the relative underdevelopment of those insurance markets at the time, ICHEIC said.
The release of the names long has been a core objective of Jewish commissioners partly because of what they say is ICHEIC’s higher calling: to force a moral reckoning by companies that violated their obligations to Jewish customers.
By that measure, justice isn’t achieved with modest payments to survivors but by forcing companies to open their archives, publicly acknowledge their crimes and apologize to survivors.
“In a lot of ways this does transcend money,” Kadden said. “A lot of survivors just want the truth to come o! ut. The right to know is a really important theme here. They want an apology. Nobody ever steps up and says, ‘We, my company, did this, and I m sorry for that.’ Nobody says that.”
A number of commissioners did in fact speak in similar terms at Tuesday’s meeting. Both Kent and Gideon Taylor, head of the Claims Conference, made laudatory statements to the effect that ICHEIC’s significance is greater than money.
But the names also have been a mixed blessing and caused survivors like Alex Moskovic considerable distress.
Moskovic, 75, a survivor living in Hobe Sound, Fla., located his name and those of four relatives his father, mother and two uncles on lists published by ICHEIC, only to be told he wasn t entitled to compensation. He received $1,000 as a humanitarian payment and no further explanation.
Others survivors, like George Sachs of New York, told JTA that ICHEIC did a “wonderful job” of helping him recover roughly $150,000 on five separate policies, two of which he hadn’t been able to identify.
In ICHEIC’s view, cases like Sachs are proof of its success at winning awards for survivors with little or no evidence to support their claims. But critics are generally unmoved by arguments based on the limitations imposed by faulty documentation.
“I have the benefit of not having to be pragmatic about this,” said Thane Rosenbaum, a law professor at Fordham University and a longtime critic of restitution efforts. “If your goal is a settlement, you have to brace yourself for something less than what you’re entitled to.
“Naturally, pragmatic lawyers and seasoned diplomats are going to see these kinds of objections as very emotional, very righteous and ultimately very unrealistic.”
To a significant degree, what divides ICHEIC from critics like Rosenbaum is vocabulary.
Rosenbaum, and to a lesser extent ICHEIC’s Jewish members, speak of historical justice and moral restitution. Eagleburger acknowledges the moral-histor! ical com ponent of ICHEIC’s effort, but ultimately judges his performance in more prosaic terms.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Eagleburger said Tuesday, “the principal purpose was, and still is, find claimants and pay them.”