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Holocaust Insurance Mess Expands As Calif. Class-action Lawsuit Grows

January 20, 2004
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Six Holocaust survivors in California have joined a growing list of plaintiffs charging that an Italian life insurance company has reneged on payments for Holocaust-era policies.

In their lawsuit, filed last week in Los Angeles Superior Court, the survivors claim that Assicurazioni Generali, one of Europe’s largest insurers, has stonewalled their requests for payouts for up to 55 years or dismissed them with meager settlement offers.

The growing number of plaintiffs is further indication that the issue of insurance payouts from pre-World War II-era policies is far from over, despite work by the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, which was set up in 1998 to handle the problem.

ICHEIC and its chairman, former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, have been accused of not working fast enough to provide payments for Holocaust survivors and their heirs.

One of the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit is Manny Steinberg, 78, who was a 14-year old boy in Radom, Poland, when he was assigned to a munitions factory for forced labor. Later he survived a death march, Auschwitz and a Dachau satellite camp. His mother and a brother perished in the Holocaust; his father and another brother survived.

“I still remember, when I was a young child, the Generali agent coming to my father’s ladies custom tailoring store every two weeks to collect $2 or $3 in insurance premiums,” Steinberg said. “And while we were in camp, my father kept reminding me, ‘If we get out, there is an insurance policy waiting.’ “

After six years of correspondence, Generali has informed Steinberg that it is still auditing his records. Generali told survivors George Brown and Ebi Gabor that it could not find any records of policies purchased by their parents.

The six survivors are seeking damages and an injunction against Generali’s allegedly unfair business practices. They are represented by attorney William Shernoff, who over the last three years has filed similar lawsuits on behalf of 12 other survivor families.

All the cases, as well as a number of class-action lawsuits on Holocaust reparations, have been transferred to a federal court in New York, where they are under review. Shernoff expects that the current litigation will also go to the New York court.

Complicating the matter is that all insurance claims against Generali and other European insurance companies have been assigned to the Holocaust insurance commission.

Peter Simshauser, Generali’s attorney in Los Angeles, said that the company had paid $100 million to ICHEIC for its operations and to settle insurance claims against Generali.

“Some individual claimants have received in excess of $500,000,” Simshauser said.

He also pointed to a letter sent last week by Generali director general Meir Lantzman to Israel’s Knesset, which stated that the company had paid out $45.5 million to 2,751 individuals.

Shernoff responded by saying the current value of policies held by survivors and heirs of Holocaust victims was more than $1 billion.

“It’s a joke,” Shernoff said. “Generali is paying out less than 10 cents on the dollar.”

Last September, three Los Angeles area survivors, including Steinberg, filed a suit against ICHEIC, claiming that delayed or denied payments totaling more than $1 billion on policies held by survivors or heirs of those who died in the Holocaust.

The deadline for submitting claims to ICHEIC expired Dec. 31.

In filing the latest lawsuit against Generali after this deadline, Shernoff said he wanted to make it clear that those who had not yet sent in a claim, or felt they had been given the runaround by ICHEIC or Generali, could still stake their claims through lawsuits.

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