BUDAPEST, Feb. 16 (JTA) Now that a global outreach project to settle unpaid Holocaust-era insurance claims has been launched, it appears that Margit, an 85-year-old great-grandmother, is headed straight for the head of the line.
As she played rummy with three friends in the Budapest Jewish community center Wednesday, Margit described how she survived the city’s ghetto with her parents and two sisters.
Before the war, her father had run a successful printing press. Among his clients was the local office of Italian insurer Assicurazioni Generali, one of the five insurance giants now cooperating with the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.
Margit had been her father’s bookkeeper, so she knew he held a life-insurance policy with Generali. The beneficiary was to be her mother.
But by the time her father and her mother died, in 1948 and 1950, respectively, it was too late: The Iron Curtain had been drawn, and relations with the West severed.
Only in October 1998 did the topic resurface, when local papers reported the formation of the international commission.
Margit couldn’t find the insurance policy, but she wrote to Generali, which responded that the policy had not been paid out.
Margit says she doesn’t know how much money may be coming to her. But with her monthly pension of just $154 equivalent, at Budapest prices, to four pairs of Levi’s any disbursement would make her remaining years a bit more comfortable.
“I need all the money I can get,” Margit said between hands of rummy. “But I’m also thinking about my son, two grandchildren and my great-grandson.”
It’s unclear how many claimants like Margit there are in the world.
In Hungary, though, commission officials will have their hands full.
Hungary has one of the largest survivor populations in the world, with close to 20,000; another 30,000 are considered heirs to those who perished.
As many as 5,000 may come forward to make claims on life insurance policies, says Gabor Sebes, executive director of the Hungarian Jewish Heritage Public Endowment.
Not surprisingly most are afraid to talk openly about whether they will file claims.
Hungary is still a poor enough country that anyone suddenly flush with cash typically keeps it hush-hush.
Survivors don’t want their names in the media because they fear crime, or at least, the resentment of neighbors.
Margit, for example, refused to give her family name.
“They haven’t received a penny yet,” said Sebes, “but every other day there’s an article in a paper about how much compensation Holocaust survivors will be receiving.”
Yet Jews are not the only ones who are now eligible for the unpaid insurance policies.
Any victim of the Holocaust who was a policyholder, beneficiary or heir to either qualifies.
The commission liberally defines a victim as someone who, anytime from 1933 to 1945: “was deprived of their life; suffered damage to their mental or physical health; was deprived of their economic livelihood; suffered loss or deprivation of financial or other assets; or suffered any other loss or damage of their property as a result of racial, religious, political or ideological persecution” by organs of the Third Reich, in territories occupied by the Third Reich, or its allies.
This would include groups such as Communists, Gypsies, homosexuals and Poles, among others.
“Our process is open to anyone, if they were a Holocaust victim and persecuted,” commission Vice Chairman Geoffrey Fitchew said at a news conference Wednesday in Budapest. “All claims will be treated in exactly the same way.”
Media reports have estimated European insurance companies may pay out anywhere from $1 billion to $4 billion.
But Fitchew suggested the final figure may ultimately be higher.
He said negotiations are continuing to “persuade” more insurers to join the commission.
He agreed that bad press may nudge other firms to pitch in.
“Negative publicity is an important consideration for any commercial operation,” Fitchew said. “Every business needs to retain the good faith of its clients. I don’t think you should underestimate that.”
For now, however, the dollar figures thrown around sound merely fanciful to those who have been waiting more than half a century for a settlement.
Many in the survivor community, after initial enthusiasm for other Holocaust-era compensation programs, are disappointed that they have not yet received any payments.
They had to produce and fill out reams of documents for those programs so some may feel it’s a waste to go through the same rigmarole all over again.
“We’ll have to convince them that it’s worth it to go down memory lane again,” said Esther Radvanyi, who will handle the commission’s outreach program with Jewish organizations in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
“It took 50 years to get here” before it was acknowledged that “some of these people have legitimate claims.”