Staking His Claim


When the latest round of talks were held in Jerusalem this week to resolve Nazi-era insurance claims, a prominent New York Jewish leader was seated at the table. But he was not sitting with the victims.

"I came into this to try to come up with some basis to move the settlement process forward," explained Kenneth Bialkin, who earlier this year became lead counsel in the talks for Italy’s largest insurer, Assicurazioni Generali.

Bialkin, former chairman of both the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said his "familiarity with the Jewish community" was a factor in Generali’s decision to hire him.

"While I certainly have a client to protect, everybody knows my objective is to achieve a fair and equitable resolution," he said in an interview before flying to Israel. "I believe there should be closure and maybe my experience will be useful: and maybe it won’t."

Even as talks proceeded, Bialkin said he was hopeful that Generali and four other European insurers could begin "making offers to pay [beneficiaries] within a month." Those affected would be persons who have irrefutable proof that they are the beneficiaries of unpaid claims. Although it has been estimated that only a few hundred people could offer such proof, Bialkin said he believed the number was higher.

The four other companies are Allianz, Axa, Winterthur and Zurich Allied.

Bobby Brown, Israel’s representative to the talks, said the companies would make their own evaluation and "pay what they believe the claims are worth. These would be considered interim payments subject to upward valuation. A person does not lose any rights by accepting the payment and does not have to sign any release."

A committee to determine valuation met last week and was to present a report to the negotiators in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem meeting is the first since European insurers agreed during a meeting in London last month to pay "real" value of pre-war life insurance policies bought by Holocaust victims. It is estimated that such claims could total between $1 billion and $4 billion.

The negotiations with the insurance companies are being conducted by the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, which includes three U.S. state insurance commissioners, the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the State of Israel.

Bialkin said Generali had asked him two years ago to represent it against class-action suits filed by relatives who said Generali refused to pay claims on life insurance policies taken out by Jews murdered by the Nazis. He said his firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, knew little about the issue and declined the offer.

"A few months ago, Generali approached us again saying they were participating in the international commission and were anxious to work out a voluntary, negotiated settlement," said Bialkin. "Since I believe that these are cases that ought to be resolved without litigation so that closure can be achieved, we agreed to represent them."

None of those involved in the talks would openly discuss Bialkin’s role, but several of those close to the negotiations said they were uncomfortable with his presence. When Bialkin reportedly said during the talks that he was wearing two hats at the table (that of a Jewish leader and as Generali’s lawyer) one of the victims’ representatives replied: "No, you only wear one hat here."

Bialkin’s role is reminiscent of that of Gerson Kekst, chairman of the board of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who handled the public relations campaign for Swiss banks.

Bialkin said he could understand if there were those critical of his role, but he said "several major leaders of survivor organizations approached me at dinners recently and told me how happy they were that somebody who understood their problems was representing a major insurance company."

As the negotiators flew to Jerusalem this week, representatives of several survivorsí organizations expressed concerns. Samuel Dubbin, a spokesman for the South Florida Holocaust Survivors Club, which he said represents about 10,000 survivors, said his members were upset that Generali appeared to be defining the issues to be discussed.

"Generali has put forth proposals that would limit the number of generations that can recover claims, that cap damages and value currencies based upon devaluations that occurred," he said.

Although Generali said it had dropped its plan not to honor claims in countries where its subsidiaries were nationalized after the war, Dubbin said Generali’s latest proposal appeared to take nationalization into account. And he questioned how Bialkin could say Generali was pledged to offering "real" value of policies when his proposal increases the policies’ value by only two to four times. He noted that in the Swiss bank case, current valuation was figured at 10 times what it was in 1945, plus interest.

Meanwhile, many survivors noted this week’s payment of $18.2 million in compensation to 235 Americans who were imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. Each one will receive between $30,000 and $250,000, depending upon the length of their imprisonment.

Survivors applauded the Americans’ attorneys but questioned why they would receive perhaps as little as $500 from the Swiss bank settlement of $1.25 billion.