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Holocaust Insurance Body Faulted for Not Getting Money to Survivors

November 12, 2001
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The word from survivors is clear: The Holocaust insurance claims process doesn’t work.

Lawmakers joined survivors in their criticism, accusing the international commission charged with resolving Holocaust-era insurance claims of being too slow and not getting money to policyholders or their heirs.

At a hearing Nov. 8 of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Government Reform Committee, the International Commission of Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, known as ICHEIC, was deemed a “failure.”

Lawmakers called for a quick end to the claims process and an extension of the February 2002 deadline for filing claims.

Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, ICHEIC’s chairman, acknowledged weaknesses in the commission’s work and said he would try to extend the filing deadline.

But Eagleburger also said the group has made progress, and he indicated that whatever ICHEIC has been able to do since its inception in 1998 has been more than anyone else to help survivors get compensation.

“At least ICHEIC has forced attention on the issue,” Eagleburger said.

Waxman also said the commission was poorly managed, having spent $40 million on administrative expenses while offering only $21.9 million to survivors. Even less has actually paid out.

“ICHEIC is simply not working well,” Waxman said.

Frustration rose as Waxman listed the commission’s administrative shortcomings, saying that fewer than 2 percent of claims have resulted in offers from insurance companies to pay up.

“I think you’re a little disdainful of us and of the people who spoke here today,” Waxman told Eagleburger, referring to Holocaust survivors who testified before the panel.

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Eagleburger retorted. “Don’t you tell me that I’m disdainful of these people who have suffered so much.”

Survivors blamed both ICHEIC and the insurance companies for the frustrating process.

Israel Arbeiter of Newton, Mass., told the committee how his father, a tailor in Poland, faithfully paid premiums on a life insurance policy. But Arbeiter has heard nothing since he filed a claim with ICHEIC.

“Please, please, do not allow insurance companies to retain that which rightfully belongs to us,” he told lawmakers.

Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, came to the commission’s defense.

“ICHEIC is not the criminal here,” Kent said.

Congressional hearings may bring the issue into the spotlight, but Congress has no real jurisdiction over the ICHEIC process. Survivors suggested that it might be effective to threaten non-compliant insurance companies that do business in the United States, but that is a matter for state insurance regulators.

Two cases challenging state regulators’ jurisdiction are working their way through the courts.

Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress and vice president of the Claims Conference, said the ICHEIC system is flawed but “is the only mechanism we have.”

Instead of blaming ICHEIC, we should work to strengthen it, Singer told JTA.

There is a fund — worth about $260 million at current rates — available for payment of insurance claims, according to Ambassador J.D. Bindenagel, who serves as special envoy for Holocaust issues for the State Department.

However, the German insurance association and ICHEIC have to agree on procedures before the money can be disbursed. Procedures include audits of claims, costs to the insurance companies and possible reimbursement, appeals and the publication of policyholder names.

ICHEIC reports that 77,800 claims have been received, but around 80 percent of claimants aren’t sure of the name of the relevant insurance company.

In addition, more than a third of the claims have been found ineligible for investigation by ICHEIC because the claims relate to other Holocaust issues, such as slave labor.

Insurance companies dispute some of the numbers. They also say that some of the purported claims really are just inquiries, because claimants are unsure which company issued their policies.

The companies in ICHEIC are Allianz, AXA, Generali, Winterthur and Zurich, and the Association of Insurers in the Netherlands. Jewish groups, as well as U.S. and European regulators, are also members of the group.

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