Just one month after the U.S. State Department and several major Jewish organizations told a congressional committee that New York State’s Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO) could be relied upon to handle all Holocaust-era insurance claims, New York State has admitted the system doesn’t always work.
The state’s newly created Department of Financial Services (which combines the Departments of Insurance and Banking) released this month the results of a preliminary investigation that found that millions of dollars remains in the coffers of life insurance companies because tens of thousands of death benefits were never paid. The HCPO is a division of the department.
As part of its investigation, the department in August directed the 172 life insurance companies and fraternal societies licensed in the state to use the Social Security death database or something comparable to identify their deceased life insurance policyholders, holders of annuity contracts and retained asset accounts whose beneficiaries never filed a claim. In just three months of searches, insurers have already paid nearly 8,000 people the more than $52 million due them. Another 28,000 claims are being processed and one million more matches are being researched.
Those findings have prompted two organizations that represent Holocaust survivors to write to Department of Financial Services Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky and Gov. Andrew Cuomo requesting that three European insurance companies doing business here — Generali, Allianz and AXA — be required to check the databases of Holocaust victims against their lists of Holocaust-era policyholders. Failure to issue such a directive, they said, would result in a “double standard” that would mean the “state’s efforts to secure payment of Holocaust victims’ and survivors’ policies is far less rigorous” than that pursued for all other beneficiaries.
Officials of the two groups, the National Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors (NAHOS) and the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA, pointed out that the HCPO takes the “passive approach” (relying on people to file claims) that the department’s investigation found doesn’t always work. They noted that this same approach was used by the c (ICHIEC) between 1998 and 2007 and that as a result it succeeded in recovering “less than 3 percent of more than 550,000 outstanding policies sold to Holocaust victims, leaving over $20 billion unpaid (in today’s value).”
In the nearly five years since ICHEIC ended, the HCPO’s “passive approach” has “secured a grand total of payment on six policies for three individuals,” the survivors wrote. They suggested that the European insurance companies be directed to make use of the automated files of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and research center in Israel, as well as records from the Swiss banks’ $1.2 billion class action settlement with survivors and their heirs, and other databases.
A spokesman for Lawsky said his office has “received the letter and is reviewing it.” A spokesman for Cuomo’s office did not respond by press time.
Leo Recter, president of NAHOS, said he is aware that ICHEIC officials said they had cross-referenced the names of unclaimed Holocaust-era policies with the database of Holocaust victims maintained by Yad Vashem. But ICHEIC, he said, was “not overseen by a governmental body like New York State.”
The ICHEIC website said ICHEIC had gathered the names of more than 500,000 policyholders or policyholder-related names from participating insurance companies and, with the help of the German Insurance Association (GDV), published on the Internet the names of more than 360,000 German Jewish policyholders.
“This information was made available to ICHEIC claimants during the claims filing period, potentially providing them with additional evidence to support their claims,” according to the website.
But Harry Rose of Miami told The Jewish Week Sunday that he only learned of the ICHEIC process earlier this year. He said he then checked the ICHEIC website and found the names of his mother and her parents on the list of Jewish policyholders. He then wrote to the HCPO to file a claim, and several months later was told that his claim had been referred to the GDV. The GDV later sent a letter saying that a thorough search had failed to find policies for any of his three family members.
“I told them I was not the one who added their names to the list,” Rose, 60, said. “I was just following up. I would like to find out where they got those names for their list.”
He said his mother is 91, but clearly remembers that her parents took out a dowry insurance policy for her in the 1930s.
“She remembers that her parents left a collection box on the counter of their store with a sign saying it was for a dowry for their daughter and asking for contributions,” he said. “After the war, my mother remembers going back to Germany, inquiring about the dowry and being told by a clerk that her father cashed in that policy during the war. If it was cashed in, they would have a record of it. They still have detailed records of the fact that my father’s mother and uncle were machine gunned to death by the Nazis in 1939 or 1940, so you would think they still have insurance records.”
Rose said that when he wrote an appeal letter to the HCPO, he received a letter Dec. 15 saying: “There is no appeals process. …” He said neither the HCPO nor the GDV addressed the fact that his family’s names were on the ICHEIC list.
One of the ICHEIC commissioners, Bobby Brown, said he favors “anything that pays the legitimate claims of additional survivors and their heirs.”
“I believe there should be no end to the ability of legitimate claimants to claim, and that there has to be a company policy of examining each request,” Brown said Sunday by phone from Jerusalem. “I have heard stories that not all of them are fulfilling their pledges to continue to check all claims. And I would love to see an appeals process because if someone feels they have a legitimate claim that has not been met, they need unbiased people to oversee the companies. … ICHEIC was recognized by governments but was not answerable to any government.”
Asked about those who insist insurance companies cannot be expected to track down relatives of families who were murdered by the Nazis, Brown said new technology and documents are available today that ICHEIC officials did not have. For instance, he said that Project HEART, a new Israeli government program he oversees to document and pursue Jewish assets lost in the Holocaust, compared a list of synagogue members with recently obtained city tax records.
“That gave us their addresses, their businesses and the names of their family members, and so we now have a very valuable list,” Brown said. “The ICHEIC process started years ago when technology was much different and when the Yad Vashem list of Holocaust victims was much smaller. In addition, new archives have been opened.”
Brown added that the insurance companies should search the records not only of those murdered in the Holocaust but other death records to find the names of those who died in later years and for whom a claim was never filed.
Also supporting the survivors’ request for New York State’s help is Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, who said simply: “Common sense and decency dictates that this is the path to take.”
“There shouldn’t be any controversy here,” he said, adding that just as insurance companies are being asked to assist beneficiaries in contemporary America, they should extend that help to the families of Holocaust victims.
“We now have empirical evidence that the system is broke, and our organization is on record as favoring legislation that would enable Holocaust survivors to pursue their rights in court,” Steinberg added.
He was referring to legislation sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) but opposed by the U.S. State Department and major Jewish organizations that would permit survivors and their heirs to sue insurance companies they believe are deliberately concealing information that would allow them to collect their relatives’ Holocaust-era life insurance.
Speaking to about 500 survivors last week in North Miami Beach, Ros-Lehtinen pointed out that the ICHEIC process rejected 74,000 out of the 90,000 claims submitted and that survivors were told this was the only forum in which they could make their claim.
“Now the insurance companies are trying to cover their tracks with advertising campaigns,” she said. “Most recently, Allianz Insurance, which not only failed to honor Holocaust-era policies but also insured facilities for the Nazis, began pursuing advertising with American media companies. I wrote letters to the media companies to make sure they knew about Allianz’s past and asked them to think through their decisions to advertise with Allianz. The media companies said they are reviewing their relationship with Allianz …”
A spokesperson for Allianz Life, said, “While we can’t undo the past, we have been extremely transparent and open about our history. We have made restitution to those who lost their properties during the Nazi period. … Allianz did not keep any money from Jewish policies; any Jewish assets/life insurance policies were confiscated by the Nazi government.”
The company began its efforts in the 1950s by working in close cooperation with the German government to try to make certain that restitution was made to those who lost their property during the Nazi period, the spokesperson said, adding: "The company also engages in many venues to promote understanding among Jewish organizations and German companies."
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which is among the major Jewish groups opposing Ros-Lehtinen’s bill, said the reason for their opposition is that they promised the insurance companies closure if they voluntarily participated in the ICHEIC process.
“None of us ever believed we would obtain full justice,” he said. “We were looking for a measure of justice — some accountability. We wanted to bring closure and some money to survivors who were still alive. Maybe it wasn’t smart … but the organized Jewish community as a whole stood with the organized Holocaust community and for better or for worse asked for this deal.”
Foxman said “our word was a bond,” and that they cannot now support this new approach.
“What was done was done in good faith and if they now want to take another approach, fine,” he added. “I have no problem if they have creative approaches, but don’t force me to support it.”
Assemblyman Joseph Morelle (D-Irondequoit) said he supports the efforts of the survivors. He said he has been to Yad Vashem and “would be very open to working with people” about tapping into Holocaust victim archives to help settle insurance claims.
“If it requires additional legislation, that is what my committee does,” he said.