Jewish organizations, others must stop interfering with Holocaust survivors’ rights


[This column is a response to a piece by Menachem Rosensaft:
Crafting a Holocaust insurance solution that works
]

The JTA recently published an op-ed by Menachem Rosensaft which gratuitously offers an “alternative” to the legislation that Holocaust survivors and children and grandchildren of survivors are seeking in Congress.  The bills Rosensaft patronizingly calls “well-intentioned” are necessary to restore our rights to go to U.S. courts to recover insurance policies sold by Allianz, Generali, AXA, and other global insurers to our parents and grandparents which the companies dishonored after the Holocaust.  We don’t know who Mr. Rosensaft claims to represent in making this suggestion, but it most certainly is not speaking for Holocaust survivors or the families of Holocaust victims.  We can speak and act for ourselves, and we demand the right to do so.  This is something that over 100 members of Congress, on a bi-partisan basis, who are co-sponsoring HR 890 and S. 466, understand. 

Let’s remember what this problem is all about.  Insurance policies—private contracts that our parents and grandparents paid for with the sweat of their brows.  Contracts that the companies charged and accepted money in exchange for the promise to pay our parents and grandparents if something happened, and needless to say our families did lose everything.  “The companies profited from our families’ misery, and no one, certainly not the World Jewish Congress or the Claims Conference, or any other of the groups now fighting us, lifted a finger to demand that the insurers make good on these legal contracts, until states like Florida, California, and New York took action in 1997-1998.” In the current legislation, survivors are demanding the same rights as every other American citizen to recover our family legacies.  Who is Rosensaft to say we should be second class citizens with regard to our ability to collect on these private insurance policies?

Other than the companies’ disgraceful conduct after the war, Rosensaft’s history is almost entirely inaccurate.  It was not until the California, Florida, and New York Legislatures passed laws to hold the companies accountable, that the insurance companies came up with the idea to create a “voluntary” commission to publish names and pay claims.  Everyone understood that this “international commission,” called ICHEIC, was indeed voluntary unless a claimant accepted an offer for a policy.  The insurers understood this, and so did the “Jewish groups” who participated.  And, contrary to what Rosensaft’s his op-ed states, there was no authorized representatives of Holocaust survivors on ICHEIC. 

When Rosensaft states that insurers “were given assurances backed by both the Clinton and Bush administrations that their participation in ICHEIC would insulate them from civil suits in U.S. courts,” he simply wrong.  It is well-established in the public record that the U.S. government never promised the companies immunity from litigation for participating in ICHEIC. 

Every agreement the government entered is explicit on this point, i.e. that the agreements and underlying U.S. policy do not mandate dismissals of lawsuits against insurers.  And, the court papers filed by the Clinton Administration after the U.S.-German executive agreement reiterated that the Agreement “does not preclude individuals from filing suit on their insurance policies in court” and does not “mandate that individual policyholders or beneficiaries bring their claims in ICHEIC;” and that the U.S. “has not undertaken a duty to achieve legal peace for German companies against state litigation.” When several members of Congress asked the Clinton DOJ about the effect of the agreements, the Department stated: “the [position of] the United States . . . does not suggest that private claimants who wish to pursue suits against German companies are foreclosed from doing so.” 

Even Stuart Eizenstat, who is supporting the insurers today—now that he is an officer of the Claims Conference—admitted in his 2003 book, that:  “The Germans and their lawyers knew full well from months of explanations that we would not take a formal legal position barring U.S. citizens from their own courts.” 

In July 2010, the Justice Department produced documents to me under the Freedom of Information Act which admitted that the U.S. government never promised any insurer that their participation in ICHEIC insulate them from litigation.  When Cong. Adam Schiff and the attorney for the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA (Sam Dubbin) cited these papers in a Congressional hearing, DOJ wrote me another letter and demanded the documents be returned!  Needless to say, I refused.  We are outraged that the government would try to cover up the truth this way – and that people like Rosensaft continue to perpetrate the lie.

On the subject of “relaxed standards,” Rosensaft is also wrong.  There is no evidence that ICHEIC companies made offers of payment in the absence of documentary proof of a policy.  For example, Generali was allowed – without proof – to deny claims on policies it admittedly sold by saying the policies were paid or lapsed before 1936.  Outrageously, ICHEIC placed the burden on survivors to disprove Generali’s argument – an impossible task for survivors when the companies have the records.  New York Legal Assistance Group President Yisroel Schulman and others condemned this grossly unfair practice. 

After ICHEIC closed in 2007, former New York State Insurance Superintendent Albert Lewis, who served as an ICHEIC appellate arbitrator, disclosed that he and other arbitrators were pressured by the ICHEIC hierarchy to rule against survivors even when they had credible claims, if the survivors could not produce documentary proof the policy was in force.  This was reported in the New York Jewish Week.  ICHEIC placed the burden on survivors to rebut Generali’s argument. This is a heavier burden than a survivor would face in court.

Rosensaft wants to give the companies credit for accepting claims made by people who didn’t know a policy number or the name of the issuing company. But he neglects to mention that insurers were already obligated by several state laws to publish the names and enable survivors and heirs to obtain this information to ascertain whether they might have a claim before ICHEIC was created.  In reality, ICHEIC allowed the companies to produce less information than the California, New York, and Florida state laws, sharply reducing the number of claims and recoveries. 

When ICHEIC closed, economist Sidney Zabludoff, who conducted the market study for ICHEIC, reported that the body only paid 3% of the amount owed by the insurance companies to Jewish families from before the Holocaust.  It paid $250 million on 14,000 policies.  Although ICHEIC also paid out $34 million in $1000 checks to 34,000 applicants, these “humanitarian” payments were considered patronizing rejections by survivors.  It is just wrong for Rosensaft to say that 48,000 survivors or family members were paid on their policies through ICHEIC.

What is most outrageous is that Rosensaft continues to justify a system that would deny Holocaust survivors our fundamental legal rights to go to U.S. courts to recover our contracts, a system that has allowed thousands of Holocaust survivors to die waiting for justice.  In 2008, after the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed Tom Lantos’s insurance legislation and Mr. Lantos fell ill and passed away.  The insurers then convinced Barney Frank to gut the bill by promising that the New York State Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO) would “continue to” pay claims under ICHEIC’s “liberal” rules.  The results:  in the subsequent 4-plus years, the New York office succeeded in helping recover a grand total of 6 policies, worth only $70,000.  Rosensaft’s statement that the office has handled all claims “appropriately” is contradicted by the award-winning investigative report by Steward Ain in the New York Jewish Week. 

We can also do without Rosensaft’s patronizing reference to lawyers. I was one of the named plaintiffs in the Hungarian Gold Train case.  When the U.S. government published the story about the way the U.S. Army took much of the Hungarians’ property from the Gold Train and used it for themselves, I said:  “That is my family’s gold on that train.”  Other Hungarian survivors, including here in South Florida, agreed.  But nothing happened. The government didn’t follow up, and neither did the Claims Conference, the World Jewish Congress, Anti Defamation League, or anyone else.  That is why we contacted our lawyer to see what could be done, and it was the three law firms that invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money, and 5 years of their work, working closely with us survivors throughout the case, that brought about that settlement. When the Judge approved the agreement, she thanked the survivors and the lawyers, and also praised the law firms for accepting less than half their normal rates to bring about a “miraculous” result. 

The Hungarian Gold Train settlement provided over $22 million for thousands of Hungarian survivors all over the world who are in need.  It produced desperately needed assistance that the government and the Jewish community were not providing.  The Claims Conference didn’t care at all about the Gold Train or our property until the lawyers were successful in court and announced progress in settlement talks.  Then, it wanted to take all the credit, but the Judge wouldn’t stand for that. Every dollar in the settlement was earmarked according to what the survivors wanted, and has to be accounted for.

When Rosensaft cites abuses by other lawyers in class action cases, that is fine but irrelevant.  Anyone who has read the legislation, or followed the testimony, would know that the legislation is not designed for class actions.  It is set up to allow individual survivors and heirs to go to court to bring an individual claim based on the information about their family policies that the companies would have to produce, under the new law and under court-ordered discovery. This is the American way.  It is the same remedy that is available for insurance consumers throughout the U.S. – unless that consumer happens to be a Holocaust survivor. 

Why shouldn’t Holocaust survivors have the same rights as every other American?  If it is to protect us from “false hope,” Rosensaft can spare us his paternalistic nonsense and mind his own business.  We survived Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buchenwald, death marches and killing fields.  We can make up our own minds.  HR 890 and S. 466 are supported by the overwhelming majority of survivors and members of the second generation.  The only survivors who oppose it are from the Claims Conference, which was part of ICHEIC and collected many millions of dollars from ICHEIC.  And the Claims Conference, like its organizational twin the World Jewish Congress, has consistently opposed all legislation allowing survivors to control our individual rights.  Why didn’t the JTA disclose that Rosensaft is a member of the WJC and the AG and the CC, who were participants on ICHEIC, and have been opposing legislation to allow survivors to sue the insurers from day one? 

Prominent New York attorney Ed Labaton wrote the following to the American Jewish Committee in condemning their opposition to the legislation:  “The insurance policies at issue were sold to individuals, paid for by men and women who tried to protect their families.  Our legal system provides remedies to those injured by predatory practices of insurance companies and others who exploit their financial power to cheat consumers.  Holocaust survivors, and the legal heirs of other victims, should have the sole right to decide for themselves how to reclaim their family legacies.  Does AJC really believe the trauma of the Holocaust gives self-appointed NGOs the right to step in and deny the actual victims their full rights as American citizens to control these legacies? 

To that, I would add:  Does Menachem Rosensaft believe he has such a right? We survivors don’t think so.


David Mermelstein is an Auschwitz survivor, who was born in Kivjazd Czechoslovakia, later annexed by Hungary. He lives in Miami, Florida, and is the Vice President of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA.

Opinion: Crafting a Holocaust insurance solution that works


[Read a response to this column: Jewish organizations, others
must stop interfering with Holocaust survivors’ rights
]

There is a solution to get us beyond the seemingly endless stalemates and complications that continue to characterize the ongoing debate over Holocaust-era insurance claims. And I do not believe it can be found in the well-intentioned bill before the U.S. Congress.

This different approach will put money more quickly into the community of the survivors and their families, minimize huge financial rewards for certain lawyers, and help bring closure to this extremely painful process.

I propose that the relevant insurance companies agree to the appointment—at their expense—of an independent monitor who could determine whether all potentially valid but as yet unresolved Holocaust-era claims are being honestly processed under the relaxed standards of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, or ICHEIC.

Some history of how we arrived at this point is in order.

For more than 50 years after the end of World War II, many German and other European insurance companies refused to honor life insurance policies that they or their predecessors had sold to Jews who eventually perished in the Holocaust. In 1998, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners joined with a number of such insurance companies and representatives of Jewish and survivors organizations to create ICHEIC. Its mandate was “to identify, settle, and pay individual Holocaust era insurance claims at no cost to claimants.”

ICHEIC applied relaxed standards that allowed individuals to file claims without documentation such as a policy number or even the name of the company they believed to have issued a policy. The insurance companies were given assurances backed by both the Clinton and Bush administrations that their participation in ICHEIC would insulate them from civil suits in U.S. courts.

According to its website, ICHEIC distributed $306 million “to more than 48,000 Holocaust survivors, their heirs, and the families of those who did not survive.”

The process was not without problems. There are survivors who argue, with some justification, that their claims were not properly considered, although the number of such remaining open claims is in sharp dispute. As a result, Congress is now considering a bill that would enable these survivors to resolve their grievances in U.S. federal court.

But the proposed legislation is unlikely to accomplish its intended laudable purpose. The aggrieved survivors generally do not know which insurance company may have issued a policy to a family member and/or do not have other specific information regarding such a policy. If lawyers are telling them they can prevail without any proof of their claims in a litigation that must satisfy the exacting standards of the Federal Rules of Evidence, such advice, to put it mildly, is unduly optimistic.

Also, the principal beneficiaries of past Holocaust-era litigations have indisputably been the plaintiffs’ lawyers. For example, in 2001 lawyers pocketed more than $59 million in legal fees from the multibillion-dollar slave and forced labor settlement with German corporations. The surviving slave laborers themselves – mostly Jews and Sinti-Roma – received about $7,500 each; forced laborers – primarily Eastern Europeans forced to work in Nazi war factories – received approximately $2,500 apiece. One especially egregious lawyer profiteered from the slave labor and Swiss banks settlements to the tune of more than $7.4 million.

In 2005, a federal judge in Florida awarded three law firms an aggregate $3.85 million in fees and expenses out of the $25.5 million “Gold Train” settlement of a litigation for the looting by U.S. Army personnel of property belonging to Hungarian Jews. Thirty-four named plaintiffs received “incentive” payments of $2,000 or $5,000 apiece, with the bulk of the settlement going for social services for needy Hungarian Holocaust survivors.

You see the pattern. While survivors receive, at most, a few thousand dollars each, their lawyers walk away with millions.

Lawyers promoting the new Holocaust insurance bill in Congress most probably have already collected names of potential plaintiffs and plan to bring suit on their collective behalf in the hope of being awarded hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, in yet another settlement.

The proposed bill also risks raising unrealistic expectations. After ICHEIC was formally dissolved in March 2007, the German insurance companies agreed to continue processing Holocaust-era claims under ICHEIC’s relaxed standards. Yet the German Insurance Association reports only 219 inquiries regarding such claims in the past five years. That’s led to the identification of only 102 policies, 60 of which had previously been disposed of.

It seems doubtful that thousands or even hundreds of additional policies will now be suddenly discovered. Hence my suggestion that the relevant insurance companies be asked to agree to an independent monitor, a person who would determine whether all potentially valid but as yet unresolved Holocaust-era claims are being honestly processed under the relaxed ICHEIC standards.

The monitor, who should have the confidence of Congress and the survivor community, should be authorized to examine claims that ICHEIC supposedly disposed of in violation of its own rules. The monitor should report to Congress periodically on the status of all open or disputed claims. If the insurance companies reject such a compromise, or if the monitor were to find one or more of these companies to be recalcitrant, congressional action could then loom as a final remedy.

There is precedent for such oversight. Ambassador J.D. Bindenagel, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for Holocaust issues in the Clinton and Bush administrations, recently pointed out to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the New York Holocaust Claims Processing Office is mandated to report on the insurance companies’ processing of survivor claims and has done so. To date, it appears that all such claims have been handled appropriately.

We need a new path. Our collective challenge must be to at least try to provide, in the words of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), an actual and viable “approximation of justice” for Holocaust survivors and their families. This proposal may be able to accomplish just that.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, teaches about the law of genocide and World War II war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.

Holocaust insurance claims divide the Jewish community


Hardly a day goes by where Renee Firestone isn’t asked by some school, museum, reporter or filmmaker to talk about the Holocaust.

“Somebody has to tell the story,” she said. “I am fortunate enough, at my age, to still be able to walk and talk. So I have to do it.”

Firestone is 88, with pale blue eyes and a warm, Cheshire cat smile. She manages a 24-unit apartment building in Beverly Hills, where she lives with her daughter, Klaire.

Renee was born in Czechoslovakia and was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau at the age of 20, during the last years of the war. Her mother was sent to the gas chambers immediately upon arrival. Her brother was a partisan. Her father actually survived internment, only to die of tuberculosis four months after being liberated.

In the 1990s, the Firestones began seeing stories in the news about litigation aimed at recovering assets from the Holocaust—compensation for slave labor, return of looted art, recovered funds from Swiss bank accounts and, finally, money for insurance claims. In the late 1990s, Renee’s cousin, Fred Jackson, was among the first people in the United States to sue the Italian insurance giant Assicurazioni Generali for payment on an old policy taken out before the war by his mother, whose brother was Renee’s father.

Renee’s father, who owned a textile and tailoring business, was the patriarch of the family, and although no policy documents exist today, Firestone is certain that if her father’s sister had insurance, then he must have it as well.

“Because my father was the adviser of the family,” she said. “For sure the home was insured, and for sure the business was insured.”

In Eastern Europe before the war, insurance and annuities were common investment techniques, especially for Jews, many of whom worked in the industry, and who, in turn, sold policies to Jewish customers. After the war, it was standard practice for insurance companies to pay claims only when relatives could produce the original policy documents and a death certificate. Needless to say, not many Holocaust survivors or their families had either.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that when it came to foreign insurance companies, state law was preempted by federal policy. That was interpreted by lower courts to mean that survivors, like Renee Firestone, cannot sue insurance companies like Generali, because the federal government participated in negotiations with other countries and formed a commission to evaluate claims—a process that many Holocaust survivors were dissatisfied with.

A bill now making its way through Congress would change that, giving survivors the right to settle with insurance companies on their own and, if no settlement can be reached, take them to court. H.R. 890, also known as the Tom Lantos Justice for Holocaust Survivors Act, is written specifically to allow survivors with unpaid insurance claims to sue insurance companies—and perhaps more importantly, would force those same companies to release a full list of unclaimed policies from that era.

The bill is named for Congressman Tom Lantos, a Hungarian Jew who escaped from a Nazi work camp and fought in an underground resistance group. He became friends with Renee Firestone when they both participated in the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Last Days” in 1998. Lantos sponsored an earlier version of the bill, which Klaire Firestone had been lobbying for, in 2007, a year before Lantos died.

This week, a number of Holocaust survivors were planning a Washington, D.C., rally—scheduled for June 7 as of press time—to support the legislation, which was approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March and is scheduled to move to the Judiciary Committee later this month.

“I’ve personally heard from dozens of survivors and children of survivors,” said Sam Dubbin, the Firestones’ lawyer and one of the rally’s organizers. “And in many cases, they’re reaching out not only out of a sense of injustice, but because they’re living in financial desperation.”

But the bill has encountered heavy resistance from the most unlikely of sources: a host of Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

“There are negotiations that have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars toward the needs of survivors worldwide,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of International Jewish Affairs for the AJC. “It’s not at all clear that these negotiations would be able to continue if this bill passed.”

It is a strange divide within the Jewish community, one that is both material and ideological—that is, should victims of the Holocaust be treated as individuals or as a collective? Both sides of the argument have merit, but the substance of those arguments has been masked by ad hominem attacks. Each side is accusing the other of being driven by greed.

“We don’t think their heart is in the right place,” Baker said, speaking of a group of survivors that are in favor of the legislation. “It’s more pocket book than heart.”

Renee Firestone, meanwhile, becomes enraged when talking about organizations like the AJC: “After what we went through—how lucky we were to even survive, and how we struggled to again become human beings. And then our own people are stopping us from getting what belongs to us, what’s ours?”

“There are multiple interests at stake, and there is a tension,” said Holocaust expert Michael Berenbaum, a professor of Jewish studies at American Jewish University. “It does not bring about the finest discourse.”

New momentum for bill to allow lawsuits against Holocaust-era insurance companies


It’s becoming a D.C. perennial: Every two years, a new Congress is ushered in and lawmakers from Florida herald a bill that once and for all will bring insurance companies to account for swindling Holocaust survivors.

And every two years, congressional staffers and Jewish community professionals who negotiate Holocaust restitution say the bill’s chances of passage are nil.

But this year, proponents of the bill say, the stars are aligned differently: A passionate congressional advocate is now in a position of considerable power. And for the first time, the bill has bipartisan Senate backing.

“The survivors are determined to speak for themselves,” said Sam Dubbin, the lawyer who for years has shepherded versions of the bill into Congress only to see them disappear into a twilight zone of parliamentary procedure. “They have an irrefutable legal and moral claim to have their rights restored.”

At issue is whether Holocaust survivors and their families should be allowed to sue European insurance companies for failing to pay on the policies of Jewish policy-holders killed at the hands of the Nazis. Except in extraordinary cases, such as lawsuits against state sponsors of terrorism, Americans cannot use U.S. courts to sue foreign entities.

In the late 1990s, Jewish groups including the Claims Conference reached settlements with European insurance companies that resulted in some $306 million being disbursed for survivors and survivor institutions through the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, known by the acronym ICHEIC (pronounced EYE-check). These groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the World Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Restitution Organization see protecting the insurance companies from individual lawsuits as key to the strategy of getting European nations and institutions to agree to negotiated restitution settlements that result in money for needy survivors.

But Dubbin and some survivor groups, like the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors, say the ICHEIC agreements never legally precluded individual lawsuits, and that legislation allowing such lawsuits against the insurance companies would correct a historic injustice. They say the ICHEIC process, which officially ended in 2007, was irredeemably weighted toward the insurers.

Opponents say that if Congress passed a bill that would allow individual U.S. lawsuits against the insurance companies, it would upend the executive branch’s exclusive control over foreign policy. Essentially, they say, it’s a jurisdiction issue.

“It would be a cruel and unrealistic increase in expectations to have people go to court to try to sue companies against whom they would have great difficulty getting jurisdiction,” said Stuart Eizenstat, the Clinton administration’s special representative for Holocaust issues at the time the ICHEIC settlements were being negotiated. Today, Eizenstat is a top negotiator for the Claims Conference.

The battle between the two sides abounds with allegations of bad faith and greed, and even the threat of elderly survivors picketing a fundraiser for a politician once seen as sympathetic to their cause.

The new bill, sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) in the U.S. House of Representatives and Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the U.S. Senate, would allow courts to proceed over executive branch objections in litigating claims aimed at insurers. Ros-Lehtinen, who has championed similar bills for years, is now able as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to expedite the bill.

Leo Rechter, president of the National Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, a group that is associated with Dubbin, told JTA that he wants courts to compel insurers to produce documentation that litigants believe to be secreted away.

“Survivors were children during the Holocaust years, and we do not have information” about parents’ claims, he said.

Advocates of the legislation say billions are potentially at stake. Some survivors say ICHEIC denied claims even when they had evidence.

“Even though I have papers showing this policy existed, the ICHEIC commission allowed Generali to deny my claim without giving any proof,” Suzanne Marshak wrote to JTA, referring to a policy she says her uncle had with the Italian insurer.

Eizenstat says ICHEIC’s standards were “relaxed,” in that applicants were not required to provide legal standards of proof that they were beneficiaries.

The latest dustup between the two sides followed a June 1 story in The New York Times that alluded to allegations by Dubbin, who is based in Florida, that Jewish groups backing the ICHEIC process have profited from opposing the legislation.

The Jewish groups fired back with a June 13 letter to Nelson and Ros-Lehtinen outlining their arguments against the bill: It would raise unrealistic expectations among survivors; reopen a negotiating process that a number of Western European nations had presumed was closed and “call into question the U.S. ability to abide by its commitments.” Such uncertainties, they said, would inhibit Eastern European nations now negotiating to settle Holocaust-era claims.

Roman Kent, a survivor and treasurer of the Claims Conference, says the legislation gets in the way of helping needy survivors now, noting Germany’s recent commitment to increase its funding of home care for elderly survivors to $180 million in 2012. This year, the figure is $156 million.

“Litigation is costly and prolonged, and there are negotiations going on that will actually produce benefits for survivors now,” he said.

On June 17, the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, which supports the legislation, said in response that separate negotiations should not impinge on the right of individuals to litigate claims and that Western European nations are unlikely to renege on separate agreements.

The largest and more established survivors group, the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, also has weighed in supporting the bill, with a caveat: Cap lawyers’ fees. Max Liebmann, the group’s senior vice president, said an overriding consideration was a recent spate of scandals that exposed lawyers ostensibly representing survivors as making unseemly profits.

“Dubbin is trying to cut in on this and make money,” he said.

Dubbin’s clients vouch for his integrity.

“He helps us with everything for so many years, not just insurance, with getting information, with filling out papers, and he never got paid,” said David Mermelstein. “If I go to court and win, shouldn’t he get paid?”

Holocaust survivors struggle to receive insurance payouts


Holocaust survivors continue to face roadblocks, including the United States government, in collecting on insurance policies taken out before the war.

Aging survivors trying to reclaim insurance policies face opposition from the State Department over concerns that pressing claims could undermine an agreement reached in 2000 between the United States and Germany, which resulted in $300 million paid to survivors and their heirs, the New York Times reported.

“The State Department is concerned that lawsuits by the survivors could not only disrupt prior agreements with European governments but might also have a negative impact on other reparation agreements growing out of the Holocaust as well,” the department said in a statement to the Times.

Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, have voiced their opposition to survivors bringing their claims to court so as not to disrupt previous agreements. In September, Congress heard testimony on proposed legislation that would make it easier to pursue such action. No such legislation has ever been successful.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who sponsored similar legislation in March, told the New York Times she hopes this year will be different.

“This will not usurp anybody’s authority,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “This is about giving the survivors their day in court. We’ve already waited too long.”

Briefs


Kollek a British Spy?
The late Teddy Kollek reportedly spied for Britain against the hard-line Jewish underground in British Mandate Palestine. Citing declassified documents, the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Achronot, reported last week that Kollek, who is best remembered as Jerusalem’s longest-serving mayor, had spent much of the 1940s passing information to the British authorities that helped them crack down on Etzel and Lehi fighters.

At the time, Kollek was a senior figure with the Jewish Agency, which was largely aligned with the more moderate Haganah and Palmach Zionist movements.

One of Etzel’s leaders, Menachem Begin, topped Britain’s wanted list, eluded capture and went on to become Israeli prime minister. According to Yediot, Israeli diplomats asked Britain’s government archives to keep the files on Kollek sealed while he was alive.

Asked about the report, Kollek’s son, Amos, told the newspaper, “Dad never spoke of his activities during that period.”

U.S. Lawmakers Want Insurance Firms to Release Names of Shoah Policyholders
Congress wants to force Holocaust-era insurance companies to disclose lists of their insured survivors. The Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act of 2007, introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), seeks to supersede international agreements brokered by the State Department to settle insurance claims through the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.

The proposed legislation asserts that commission, which officially ended its nine-year efforts last week, “did not make sufficient effort to investigate” or compile the names of Holocaust-era insureds or the claims due to survivors. The measure would require insurers to disclose comprehensive lists of those they insured during the Hitler era.

The legislation also authorizes federal lawsuits to recover monies from insurers, thus overruling the commission’s authority and a variety of adverse Supreme Court rulings that have denied survivors the right to sue.

The bill was spurred by survivors groups, following revelations in the Jewish media that the secret International Tracing Service archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany, contains thousands of uninvestigated documents relating to insurance and corporate complicity.

Briton Wins Largest Jewish Literary Prize
The largest-ever Jewish literary prize, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature that was inaugurated this year, has been awarded to British writer Tamar Yellin, author of “The Genizah at the House of Shepher.”

The award carries a grant of $100,000. Individuals cannot apply but instead are recommended by an anonymous team of nominators. Many Jewish literary awards have modest, if any, honorariums attached.

The prize was established by Sami Rohr’s children and grandchildren to celebrate his 80th birthday and is presented to an emerging writer, whose work of exceptional literary merit stimulates an interest in themes of Jewish concern.

Yellin has won a triple crown of major Jewish literary awards this year. In addition to the Rohr Prize, she received Hadassah’s Ribalow Prize and the Reform Judaism Prize, both awarded for Jewish fiction.

When asked about how the latest award might change her life, she replied, “I’m carrying on with my writing. I’m working on a new novel.”

She explained that because of her supportive husband, she was able to give up teaching several years ago and become a full-time writer. She continues to visit schools in northern England as a Jewish Faith Visitor, teaching about Judaism in schools where there’s a large Pakistani Muslim community and many of the children have never encountered a Jewish person.

“It’s very important to connect with them, for them to meet someone Jewish and to learn about our traditions to break down the barrier of ignorance,” she said.

The daughter of a third-generation Jerusalemite father and a Polish immigrant mother, she studied Hebrew and Arabic at Oxford. In her novel and stories, she writes of identity, community, belonging and exile, which, as she explained, are themes that grow out of her experience of being Jewish in England.

Rohr was a real estate developer in Bogota, Columbia, for more than 30 years and now lives in Miami. His lifelong love of Jewish writing includes the work of Lion Feuchtwanger and, in Yiddish, Israel Joshua Singer.

The two runners-up, who will each receive $7,500, are Amir Guttfreund of Israel, author of “Our Holocaust,” and Michael Lavigne of San Francisco, author of “Not Me.” Other finalists are Yael Hedaya from Israel, author of “Accidents,” and Naomi Alderman from England, author of “Disobedience.”

Administered by the Jewish Book Council, the prize will be given annually, with awards to fiction and nonfiction writers in alternate years.

The Rohr family will also establish the Rohr Family Jewish Literary Institute, a forum devoted to the continuity of Jewish literature. The institute will convene a biannual retreat, meeting for the first time after the next round of award recipients are announced in 2008. All of the finalists will be invited to participate.

Judges for this year’s award were professor Jeremy Dauber, Columbia University; novelist (and MacArthur Fellow) Rebecca Goldstein; Daisy Maryles, Publishers Weekly; novelist Jonathan Rosen; and professor Ruth Wisse, Harvard University. — Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week

Briefs courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Insurance Claim Debate Heats Up


Two antagonists in a long-simmering dispute about the handling of life insurance claims stemming from the Holocaust era took off their gloves last week in a bitter exchange of letters.

On one side stands Lawrence S. Eagleburger, chairman of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC). ICHEIC was established in 1998 in Switzerland with a mission to speed up and settle claims against European insurance companies, at no cost to survivors and families of Holocaust victims.

The commission’s board includes representatives of European insurance carriers, the National (U.S.) Association of Insurance Commissioners, major Jewish organizations and the State of Israel.

On the other side is John Garamendi, insurance commissioner of the State of California, as well as an ICHEIC commissioner, who has been a long-standing critic of Eagleburger and last year called for his resignation.

Garamendi opened the volley in a two-page letter to Eagleburger, accusing ICHEIC of sloppy management, dragging its feet in processing claims and favoring European insurers.

At the present pace, and as elderly survivors keep dying, "claims will not be completed until 2011," he wrote and charged that only 5 percent of claims had actually been paid out.

Since ICHEIC’s operations are budgeted only until the end of this year, Garamendi said that he feared that "claimants will be deserted."

He also accused ICHEIC of ignoring its own commissioners "who dare to suggest improvement, make constructive criticism, ask incisive questions or call for better management."

Eagleburger, a former U.S. Secretary of State, struck back with a seven-page rebuttal, in which he characterized Garamendi’s letter as "an ongoing embodiment of your grandstanding tactics."

In response to a recommendation by Garamendi, which Eagleburger said would mean going back on his word, he noted acidly, "That may be the way you do business in California, but it would be my definition of truly amateurish."

Among the mass of data cited in the Eagleburger letter, clarified in a phone interview with ICHEIC Chief Operating Officer Mara Rudman, are:

Since its inception, ICHEIC has received 80,373 insurance claims, of which only 17,200 named a specific European insurer, who had issued the original policy to a Holocaust victim or survivor. In addition, ICHEIC linked 2,000 further claims to the names of companies. The remaining 76 percent of claims did not list a specific company.

ICHEIC has made concrete settlement offers to 3,700 claimants. Of these, 2,500 have been accepted by the claimants (which means that about 13 percent of the 19,200 claimants linked to specific insurance carriers have accepted settlement).

So far, $58 million has been paid out to claimants, with an additional $16 million in "humanitarian" aid going to elderly individuals, who received $1,000 each.

While ICHEIC is budgeted only until the end of this year, it expects to receive operating funds for another year. The commission hopes to process all valid claims by early next year and wind up its operations by the end of 2005.

German, French, Swiss and Italian insurance companies have funded ICHEIC for a total of $500 million for its operations and to settle all claims.

The main sticking point is the Italian insurer Assicurazoni Generali, one of Europe’s largest, which did a thriving business selling policies to East European Jews before World War II. A number of survivors are suing Generali for allegedly stonewalling their claims for decades. Rudman acknowledged that Generali’s current pace was unacceptable and that ICHEIC is seeking to speed up the company’s claim processing.

In California, survivors have lawsuits pending against Generali, as well as against ICHEIC for its bias in favor of Generali. The lead attorney in most cases has been William M. Shernoff of Claremont and Garamendi has publicly supported the plaintiffs’ suits.

According to financial reports filed with the California Secretary of State, Shernoff’s law firm contributed $55,000 to Garamendi’s election campaign in 2002.

Asked about the frequent complaints aimed at ICHEIC’s operations by survivors and in congressional hearings, Rudman acknowledged that all sides greatly underestimated the complexity and timeline of settling claims and that the commission suffered from "some poor communications. Everybody expected too much."

"We at ICHEIC have had a lot ground to make up," she added.

Community Briefs


Rose ParadeProselytizing

Two rival teams will square off in Pasadena on New Year’sDay. No, not USC vs. Michigan. Get ready for the ultimate grudge match: Jewsfor Judaism vs. Jews for Jesus.

A year after Jews for Jesus’ international witnessing campaign,Behold Your God, hit Southern California, the L.A. chapter is gearing up onceagain for more “literature distribution,” said Director Tuvya Zaretsky. “Weencourage people to think about spiritual issues, new beginnings. So we go outand hand out literature as the parade is beginning and afterward.”

Jews for Jesus’ volunteers are also expected to visit theRose Bowl after the game ends and Victory Park, where the floats are put ondisplay after the parade. Zaretsky said that the group has had a presence in Pasadenaevery New Year’s Day since 1974.

In keeping with the parade’s theme this year, “Music, Music,Music,” Jews for Jesus has named their new pamphlet “Happy New Music!”

In response, Jews for Judaism will have a team of its ownstanding by distributing their own pamphlet, “Truth in Advertising.”

“We’re nonconfrontational, we keep 10-feet distance. We givethem no chance to say they’re being stalked,” said Jews for Judaism’s educationdirector, Rabbi Aaron Parry, who will lead volunteers in counter-leafleting.”We’re just looking to have an equal voice.” — Adam Wills, Associate Editor

Deadline Looms for InsuranceClaims

Insurance claims for Holocaust-era policies must be filed byDec. 31 with the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, orclaimants risk being unable to collect money owed.

Prior to World War II, Jewish families throughout Europepurchased life insurance. However, many of those records were destroyed. Also,families of murdered Holocaust victims were often unable to meet insurersrequirements that they provide a death certificate on behalf of their kin. TheNazis never issued death certificates for those slaughtered in concentrationcamps.

Claim forms and more information can be obtained by callingthe California Department of Insurance’s hotline at 1-800-927-4357, or visitingwww.icheic.org. — Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Hate Crimes Lessen; Jews StillTargets

Hate crimes in Los Angeles County, as in the state andnation, are down from the peaks reported in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the L.A. County Commission on Human Relations reported last week.

The downward curve in 2002, compared to 2001, also held forcrimes motivated by religious hatred, which dropped from 129 to 119, or 8percent.

However, as in past years, the great majority of religioushate crimes were aimed at Jewish targets, which were victimized in 66 percentof all cases, followed by Protestants (11 percent), and Muslims (9 percent).

Commenting on the anti-Jewish incidents, the commissionreport noted that “some of these incidents were clearly cases of mistakenidentity, but the actual numbers of Jewish victims is unknown because mostpolice reports do not specify the religion of the victims.”

More than half (54 percent) of all religion-based crimesconsisted of vandalism of homes, businesses and religious institutions, while20 percent involved violence. Included in the latter category was an attackagainst an El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport on July 4, 2002, during which an Egyptian immigrant killed two Israeli Americans.

All together, religion-motivated incidents represented only6 percent of the county’s total hate crimes, while nearly 70 percent were basedon racial hostility, targeting mostly African Americans.

Countering the overall drop in hate crimes were attacksagainst gays and lesbians, most of them of a violent nature, which rose 7percent.

An earlier and separate Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reporton anti-Semitic incidents in 2002, which also counted noncriminal acts, foundno appreciable rise in Southern California, compared to the previous year.However, on a national basis, similar comparisons showed an 8 percent jump.

Looking at the county figures, regional ADL director Amanda Susskindsaid that “Any number of hate crimes is too many and we are particularlyconcerned that African Americans continue to be the most frequent targets ofracial hate crime and that sexual orientation-based hate crime is on theincrease.” — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Federation Gives JCCGLA Dec. 29Deadline on Loan

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, one of thebiggest supporters of the area’s JCCs, has formally requested the JewishCommunity Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) come up with a plan to repaythe more than $1.6 million it owes — or else.

After two years of talks, The Federation has given JCCGLAuntil Dec. 29 to come up with a viable plan to pay off the unsecured loan,Federation President John Fishel said.

Nina Lieberman Giladi, executive vice president of JCCGLA,said her group has put forth three different proposals, each of which TheFederation has rejected. One offer would have given The Federation the BayCities JCC property; another would have deeded the Silverlake Independent JCCto the philanthropy group. — M.B.

L.A. Survivors Sue Claims Commission


Three Holocaust survivors in their 70s lead comfortable lives in Los Angeles suburbia, but their anger burns as fiercely as when they were teenagers deported to Nazi forced labor and concentration camps.

Their indignation and frustration are now directed mainly at an international commission, which they believe is fronting for an insurance company that has given them the runaround for nearly 60 years.

During a recent news conference, the three survivors denounced the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) and its chairman, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

Two of the men, Manny Steinberg of West Hills, and Dr. Jack Brauns of Covina, have filed suit against the commission, charging that it is in league with Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, one of Europe’s largest insurance companies, to lower or deny claims by survivors or their heirs.

"I was in Auschwitz and ICHEIC has the same kind of selection process, deciding who will get paid and who won’t," Steinberg, 78, charged. "Eagleburger and Generali act like little gods."

Brauns, 79, complained that "Eagleburger portrayed himself as a man on a white horse, who would help the survivors, but he doesn’t respond to calls and his commission meetings are open to Generali but closed to survivors and the public."

Si Frumkin, 72, is not part of the lawsuit, but has had his own unhappy experiences with ICHEIC.

"This is a totally inefficient operation, in which the insurance company calls the tune," he said.

The demand for Eagleburger’s ouster was joined by California insurance commissioner John Garamendi, a member of the ICHEIC board, who in a separate statement said, "It’s time for him to go…. It seems ICHEIC is more often interested in protecting [insurance] companies than in providing quick and appropriate payment for the survivors."

ICHEIC was formed in 1998 as a private body, incorporated in Switzerland, by representatives of European insurance companies, major American Jewish organizations and the State of Israel, as well as insurance commissioners from California and several other states. Its declared purpose was to speed up the process of insurance claim payments and save survivors the time and expense of lengthy private legal proceedings.

But in congressional testimony in September, Eagleburger acknowledged that in five years ICHEIC had settled only 5 percent of the 54,000 claims submitted. He also conceded that his commission has spent more on its own operations and salaries than in payments to survivors.

However, several Jewish leaders have defended ICHEIC and its chairman, saying that the job was much more complicated than anticipated and that Eagleburger was doing his best under difficult circumstances.

The frustration expressed by Steinberg and Brauns was fueled by decades of fruitless dealings with Generali, and transferred to ICHEIC, which they believe is manipulated by the Italian insurance company.

According to attorney William Shernoff, who filed the suit in Los Angeles Superior Court under California’s Unfair Business Practices statute, ICHEIC’s operations are underwritten through a $100 million grant from Generali, which apparently includes Eagleburger’s annual salary of $360,000.

"It’s as if I appeared before a judge, knowing that he is paid by the company I’m suing," Frumkin said.

Steinberg, born Hirsch Mendel Sztajnberg in Radom, Poland, was 14 when he was assigned to a munitions factory for forced labor, and later survived a death march, Auschwitz and a Dachau satellite camp. His mother and a brother perished in the Holocaust, while 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 to $3 in insurance premiums," Steinberg said. "And while we were in camp, my father kept reminding me, ‘If we get out, there is a small insurance policy waiting."

Somewhat ironically, Generali was founded by Jewish merchants in Trieste, Poland, in 1831, had thousands of Jewish agents and, according to the lawsuit, wrote some 80 percent of policies held by Jews in prewar Europe.

After decades of stonewalling by Generali, Steinberg said, the insurance company began to refer all claims to ICHEIC. But after five years of correspondence with the commission, Steinberg’s claim is no closer to resolution, said the retired importer and Korean War veteran.

Brauns, a retired surgeon, was born in Lithuania and spent four years in concentration camps, starting at age 16. He was liberated in Dachau in the spring of 1945.

In 1930, his father had taken out a $2,000 policy with Generali for his son’s future education, to be paid out in dollars at the September 1945 maturity date.

Although the Brauns family was one of the very few who had hidden and then recovered their original policy, repeated visits to Generali headquarters in Rome over a 55-year period bore no results.

Finally, three years ago, Brauns received a letter from ICHEIC, to whom Generali had referred all claims, offering to pay $5,000 for the 1930 policy. Counting accrued interest and inflation rates in the intervening years, Shernoff believes that actual worth of the policy is now $100,000.

Frumkin was 10 years old when he and his family were herded into the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania, and 13 when he was transferred to a forced labor construction project.

"I am one of a hundreds of thousands of cases whose claims have been stonewalled," he said.

He is currently sitting on a committee to distribute $4.2 million paid by Dutch insurance companies among some 3,000 California claimants.

"We are working very hard and making good progress, without asking for a penny in pay," Frumkin said. "I wonder why Eagleburger cannot do the same."

He added that whatever insurance money he may get will go to charity.

Despite the accumulating pressure, Eagleburger has no intention of resigning, his executive assistant, Anais Haase, told The Journal.

Haase defended ICHEIC as the only venue giving survivors the opportunity of pursuing their claims without cost. She warned that if Eagleburger and the commission had to defend themselves against lawsuits, it would divert time and money from processing claims.

Kenneth Bialkin, the New York-based lead attorney for Generali, said recently that the insurance company "couldn’t be more forthcoming" in trying to settle 60-year-old claims and pointed to its $100 million contribution to ICHEIC as proof of Generali’s fairness and good faith.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), a veteran congressional champion of survivor claims, said that, "I’m not sure that getting rid of Eagleburger would be a magic bullet. He could have been doing a better job, but the problems of ICHEIC are not his fault alone. It is the insurance companies that should be facing consequences for their unfair treatment of claimants."

Other prominent Jewish spokesmen also defended Eagleburger, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Los Angeles Times reported.

Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, said that ICHEIC’s problems were not due to bad faith but to facing "a mammoth task, which is bigger than we ever thought it was going to be."

Stuart Eizenstat, the Clinton administration’s pointman in Holocaust restitution negotiations, said that "Larry [Eagleburger] has earned every nickel and then some.

He’s had to undergo hell to bring the parties together."

Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and a member of ICHEIC, said that Eagleburger had done his best under difficult circumstances.

Frumkin expressed his "total puzzlement" and Brauns his skepticism regarding the supportive statements by the Jewish spokesmen.

‘California Eight’ Sue Italy’s Generali


When Suzanne Weiner-Zada was growing up in Hungary, her father, a wealthy lumber merchant, took out eight insurance policies with Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, one of the world’s largest insurance companies, which operated extensively in the pre-World War II Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe.

One policy was on the life of her 10-year-old brother, Laszlo, who was killed in Auschwitz, as were their grandparents.

Weiner-Zada survived Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz and eventually settled in Los Angeles, working as an artists’ representative. Until two years ago, she didn’t try to redeem the policies, because "I didn’t want blood money," she said.

When she finally did apply, she received a settlement offer of $10,533, later raised to $16,012. The figures were ridiculously low, she said, but what really set off the feisty 73-year-old was Generali’s demand that she sign a statement to the effect that the money was being paid out as an act of charity and not as a legal obligation.

"They want to make us look like beggars," Weiner-Zada exploded. "I said to hell with it. Even if the sums were much larger, I would never sign such a thing. There’s still a lot of spunk in me."

Weiner-Zada is among eight parties of Holocaust survivors and their descendants from the Los Angeles area, who in early April filed a suit against Generali in Los Angeles Superior Court. They claim that for more than 50 years the company had stonewalled their requests for payment on policies or fobbed them off with meager settlement offers.

The actual and potential stakes in this and a half-dozen other lawsuits filed against Generali are huge. Attorney William M. Shernoff, who represents the "California Eight" and has been confronting Generali for five years, estimates that the policies in the current suit might now be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and might reach millions if a jury ultimately adds bad faith and punitive damages to its verdict.

But that may be only the tip of the iceberg. If the eight win their case, they might be followed by tens of thousands of other plaintiffs seeking billions of dollars from Generali and other European insurance companies.

Generali has used various lines of defense, according to Shernoff and his co-counsel, Lisa Stern. First, the company said it could not find records of the disputed policies, or demanded, according to numerous survivors, death certificates for Jews killed in Auschwitz or other extermination camps, a charge denied by Generali.

When these arguments failed, Generali said that the insurance payments had been paid to Hitler’s regime after it confiscated the policies held by Jews.

Generali also argued that its branch offices in Eastern Europe had been expropriated and nationalized by communist governments after World War II. But the latest and strongest barrier was Generali’s position that all claims be routed through a body known as The International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.

The commission was established in 1998 by major European insurance companies, insurance commissioners from various U.S. states, with the participation of major Jewish organizations, including the World Jewish Congress, and the State of Israel. It was hoped that through the commission setup, claimants would get their money faster and easier than going through lengthy court proceedings.

In practice, critics say, only a trickle of claims has been approved by the commission, which is funded entirely by the insurance companies, with Generali contributing the biggest stake, $100 million.

In a landmark decision, Manhattan Federal District Judge Michael B. Mukasey ruled in early April that the commission could not dispense fair treatment and functioned, in his words, as a "company store."

The decision unblocked the path for the filing of the "California Eight" suit, and other suits which had been backing up.

The other Los Angeles plaintiffs in the case are Stephen Lantos, Edith More, Iga Pioro, George Kunstadt, Helga and Tom Sorter, Susan Ungar, and Jack Weiss and his daughter, Judy Friedman.

The allegations against Generali were vigorously contested by Kenneth Bialkin, the company’s lead attorney, who said that Generali "couldn’t be more forthcoming" in trying to settle 60-year-old policy claims.

There is a certain irony in Generali being cast as the heavy in the ongoing legal battles with Holocaust survivors. The company was founded in 1831 by Jewish merchants in Trieste, had thousands of Jewish agents throughout Europe and, even now, its current chairman of the board is Jewish.

Bialkin said he was particularly disturbed by the claim that Generali had demanded official death certificates from Jews killed in extermination camps, a charge that "immediately raises a horrid image."

Despite testimonies from survivors, Bialkin insisted that the death certificate demands were false and had been officially denied by Generali.

He pointed to a voluntary trust fund established by Generali in 1998 and its $100 million contribution to the international commission as proof of the Italian company’s fairness and good faith.

A former national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, Bialkin charged that "the plaintiffs want to give Generali a bad name, and that bothers me as a Jew and a lawyer."

Justice Delayed and Justice Denied


Holocaust survivors have been waiting decades to reclaim Holocaust-era insurance policies. Unfortunately, the findings of an ongoing congressional investigation I initiated indicate that their wait is far from over.

In 1998, the International Commission on Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) was set up to settle outstanding policies issued to victims of the Holocaust as quickly as possible. In November 2001, the House Government Reform Committee conducted an oversight hearing on the work of the ICHEIC, and the findings were disheartening.

ICHEIC revealed that it has spent over $40 million in salaries, administrative expenses and outreach, while paying barely $12 million to survivors and their families. Of the 77,800 claim applications received by ICHEIC, only 758 resulted in offers, yielding an approval rate of only 1 percent. In many instances, survivors and their families cannot name the insurance company that provided the Holocaust-era insurance. But even among those applications that name specific companies, the compensation rate was less than 10 percent.

The main cause of the failure to resolve claims appears to be the actions — and the inaction — of insurance companies. The majority of the companies that have agreed to the ICHEIC process have not lived up to their obligation to disclose policyholder lists. The ICHEIC member companies also appear to have wrongfully rejected, undervalued or left unanswered the claims of many survivors. And the majority of German insurance companies have refused to even join the ICHEIC process.

I was surprised and disappointed by the response of ICHEIC Chairman Lawrence Eagleburger during the hearing to questions regarding the administration of ICHEIC itself. When I pressed Eagleburger for more information about ICHEIC’s $40 million in expenditures on salaries, office space, meetings and outreach, he became angry and said, "I’m not going to sit here and spend my time to tell you something that is frankly none of your business."

It would be deeply troubling if ICHEIC could operate without oversight, as its existence is central to the current United States policy on Holocaust-era insurance claims.

Under a July 2000 agreement with Germany, the United States agreed to urge U.S. courts to dismiss all cases involving Holocaust-era claims against German companies, including insurance claims that come under the scope of ICHEIC, for all companies that contribute to a $4.4 billion fund established for the settlement of these claims. A similar agreement was signed with Austria. However, the U.S. government’s determination of whether to intervene in an insurance case does not take into account whether or not a company has abided by ICHEIC’s rules and standards. Thus, if the ICHEIC system isn’t working, Holocaust survivors — many of whom are nearing the end of their lives — may have no meaningful recourse for their claims.

Take the example of Judith Steiner, a Los Angeles area survivor who was only 7 years old when her family was deported from Hungary to a series of concentration camps. After the war ended, she was miraculously able to recover some of her family’s belongings. She submitted a claim to ICHEIC with a copy of a premium payment her grandfather paid to a subsidiary of the German insurer Allianz. The company’s insignia was on the page, yet she was rejected because "no evidence of contractual relationship could be found."

The rejection of Steiner’s claim was in clear violation of ICHEIC rules, but it wasn’t until a year later, after I raised her case at the hearing, that the company acknowledged "a clerical oversight" and the firing of the claim-handler who made the mistake.

Without proper oversight and monitoring to catch these errors, many Holocaust survivors like Steiner, face a Catch-22: They could file an appeal, but ICHEIC rules require them to waive their right to file suit against the company and the appeal decision would be final. Even if they did go to court, the U.S. government would ask for the dismissal of their case.

This is the worst kind of unfairness. It is justice delayed and justice denied.

In light of the current U.S. policy, it is entirely Congress’ prerogative to make sure that ICHEIC is operating efficiently and effectively.

The hearing in November sparked several important developments. During the hearing, Eagleburger announced a plan to institute a policing commission to make sure that companies are following ICHEIC rules. I look forward to seeing this system swiftly put into place. In January, the deadline for submitting claims was extended from the original Feb. 15 deadline through Sept. 30, 2002.

While I am still concerned that the deadline extension will make little difference unless a comprehensive list of Holocaust-era policyholders is published, I am cautiously optimistic that more names will be forthcoming. I will also keep working for the passage of H.R. 2693, the Holocaust Victims Insurance Relief Act, legislation I introduced to require all insurance companies operating in the United States to disclose the names on policies issued in Nazi Europe. I am determined to do everything necessary to make sure that ICHEIC is held accountable to the public and to the individual survivors who have been waiting so long for answers.

Given the concerns that have been raised about insurance companies’ commitment to the ICHEIC process, it is time for the United States to explore new forms of leverage that will compel the insurance companies to live up to their obligations. Otherwise, many Holocaust survivors may never see justice in their lifetimes.

Show Us the Money


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 (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.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), however, took a tough stance, faulting ICHEIC for the low percentage of claims filed, and for failing to force German insurance companies to follow procedures.

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 been paid out. "ICHEIC is simply not working well," Waxman said.

Waxman’s frustration appeared to rise as he 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.

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 noncompliant 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.

Waxman and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) have filed a bill to force insurance companies operating in the United States to provide lists of policyholders, or face financial penalties.

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 said.

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.

Survivors Get Short-Shrift


The World Jewish Congress (WJC) has sharply criticized a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles last week, which accuses the international commission charged with settling Holocaust-era insurance disputes of spending more than 10 times as much on administrative expenses than has been paid to survivors and their heirs.

According to the class action suit, the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) has apparently paid out more than $30 million in salaries, hotel bills and newspaper ads since its founding in October 1998, while the five European companies that fund the commission have distributed only $3 million to claimants.

At issue is whether ICHEIC should have sole jurisdiction over such disputes or whether survivors can file separate class action suits in American courts.

As the primary Jewish organization serving on the international commission, the WJC is the U.S. government’s designated agent for dealing with contested insurance claims from the Holocaust era, says Executive Director Elan Steinberg.

Speaking from his office in New York, Steinberg told The Jewish Journal that the intention of the Los Angeles suit “would appear to be that lawyers will be able to inject themselves in a process from which they are excluded at the moment.”

William Shernoff, who filed the suit, responded heatedly that “Mr. Steinberg’s comment shows a complete lack of understanding of what is really happening. He is trying to substitute the commission’s secret process for the survivors’ constitutional rights in court and additional rights under specific California legislation.”

Shernoff filed the class action suit last week on behalf of Los Angeles resident Felicia Spirer Haberfeld. She is the 89-year-old widow of Alfons Haberfeld, who ran a profitable distillery in the Polish town of Oswiecim and served as the last president of the town’s Jewish community.

Oswiecim is better known by its German name, Auschwitz.

In the fall of 1939, the couple left on a trip to attend the New York World’s Fair, where the distillery had a display. They left their 2-year-old daughter Franciszka in Poland with her grandmother.

Caught on the high seas by the outbreak of war, the Haberfelds could not return to their home in Poland. Their daughter and the grandmother perished in the Holocaust.

In the mid-1930s, Alfons Haberfeld took out a number of insurance policies with the large Italian insurer Assicurazioni Generali, including one on his own life and one to provide a dowry for his daughter. After 1957, when the policies matured, Alfons Haberfeld tried unsuccessfully to collect on the policies, and after his death in 1970, his window continued the effort.

In the latest development, Felicia Spirer Haberfeld received a letter from Generali offering to settle all her claims for $500, a figure Shernoff considers ridiculously low. In addition, the suit claims, other survivors have received similar form letters, whose language implies that the memos were being sent at the direction of the international commission.

Haberfeld’s suit seeks an injunction prohibiting Generali from enticing other Holocaust survivors and their heirs in California “into settling their claims for a fraction” of their true value. The class action suit seeks also to nullify existing insurance settlements induced by the Generali form letter and stop the future mailing of the letters. A first hearing on the injunction petition has been set for June 19.

Peter Simshauer, Generali’s attorney in California, told The Journal that he was still evaluating the Haberfeld suit but believed that it was without merit. He said that Generali had established a $12-million trust fund for survivors in Israel some years ago and had pledged more than $100 million for future worldwide claims through ICHEIC.

While the Haberfeld suit specifically targets Generali, the Italian company also sits on the international commission, along with four other Swiss, German and French insurance companies.

In his suit, Shernoff sought to show that the commission, founded in 1998 as a private organization to quickly and fairly settle insurance disputes, has fallen down on the job.

Citing extensively from internal ICHEIC documents, Shernoff alleged that the commission had spent $30 million in administrative expenses but had distributed a mere $3 million to claimants.

One internal memo, written in January by Geoffrey E. Fitchew, the commission’s vice chairman, warns that “ICHEIC is at risk of facing increasing criticism, focusing on the low proportion of our claimants who have received offers… and on the unfavorable ratio between the costs of administrating the ICHEIC claims process and the value of offers.”

These offers have been as low as $500 for multiple prewar policies, as in the Haberfeld case, and more than half have been rejected by claimants, according to the lawsuit.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who heads the international claims commission, acknowledged some of its shortcomings in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

He conceded that “we have spent more money getting ready than we should have.”

According to the cited internal documents, the commission has had at least 18 meetings, including seven in London, one in Jerusalem, one in Rome, eight in Washington, D.C. and one in New York. As many as 100 participants attended the meetings, some held at luxury hotels.

In the commission’s defense, Eagleburger said that ICHEIC had to spend nearly $9 million in newspaper ads to reach out and inform potential claimants, along with expenditures for searches of archives.

In a related development, the House of Representatives last week approved an amendment to the State Department budget that calls for the agency to review ICHEIC’s procedures.

In supporting the amendment, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) told news agencies, “ICHEIC is not doing the job Congress expected it to do, and I intend to ensure that it has fair procedures and is accountable to Holocaust survivors.”

A Kind Word


About the only words of praise for Chuck Quackenbush, who resigned last week (June 28) as California insurance commissioner in the face of certain impeachment, have come from Holocaust survivors grateful for his dogged attempts to force European insurance companies to pay claims stemming from the Nazi era. At the same time, Quackenbush’s resignation left in abeyance the future of a $4.2 million humanitarian fund set up by Dutch insurance companies for needy Holocaust survivors.

Quackenbush still faces a likely criminal investigation into charges that he allowed California insurance companies to avoid billions of dollars in fines stemming from mishandled earthquake damage claims in return for much smaller donations to foundations he established. In April 1999, Quackenbush formed the California Holocaust Insurance Settlement Alliance, headed by Holocaust survivors, to increase pressure on recalcitrant European insurers and identify potential claimants residing in California.

Named as chairman was Jona Goldrich, one of the state’s leading home builders. In an interview, Goldrich said that he knew nothing of the charges that brought down Quackenbush but that the former commissioner did “an excellent job for the Jewish community, and we will miss him. “We are ready to work with his successor and only hope that he will be as aggressive in forcing European insurers to pay up,” said Goldrich. His committee, he said, will send a letter of appreciation to Quackenbush.

One of Quackenbush’s accomplishments was to persuade three Dutch insurers – Aegon, ING and Fortis – to establish the $4.2 million fund for the benefit of an estimated 3,000 indigent Holocaust survivors in California.

The money is still available, and none has been spent, said Richard Mahan, spokesman for the alliance. But the mechanism to transmit and distribute the fund was never established by Quackenbush’s office, due to his other difficulties.

Si Frumkin, who serves on the alliance’s executive committee, termed Quackenbush’s resignation “tragic for the Jews…. He was the only one to put real pressure on the European insurance companies by threatening to withdraw their permits to conduct business in California.

“I feel very badly about this matter,” added Frumkin. “I would have been proud to drive a tank if Quackenbush were my commander.”

Arthur Stern, a retired business executive, concurred that “in terms of representing the survivor community, Quackenbush behaved in exemplary fashion.”

Added Dr. Jack Braun, “Quackenbush did extremely constructive work, and I only hope that they find someone as strong in his stead.”

Disturbing Numbers


Three out of every four insurance policy claims submitted by Holocaust survivors or heirs of victims are being rejected by European insurers.

The 75 percent rejection rate is particularly startling since these claims, submitted through an international commission, are considered the strongest ones and were to be processed on a fast track basis, requiring only minimum backup proof.

The figures are based on internal documents of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, according to a front-page article in Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times.

So far, the five European insurers participating in the commission have agreed to settle only 124 of 909 claims submitted. Some 393 claims have been rejected, and the rest have been pending for more than three months.

Deborah Senn, Washington state’s insurance commissioner and a leading voice among state insurance officials, said that “I am very seriously concerned about how the companies have participated in this process. The companies are turning down claims even when they are well documented. If three out of four claims are being rejected in the fast track, how are the larger group of survivors and their heirs going to see some justice?”

The five participating companies are Allianz AG of Germany, Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, Axa of France, and Switzerland’s Winterthur and Zurich. These companies wrote about 35 percent of European life, homeowner and dowry policies between 1930 and 1945.

Allianz spokesman Andrew Frank confirmed the low number of approved claims and said that rejected claimants “should theoretically be taken care of” by a separate humanitarian fund established by the insurers and to be administered by the same international commission.

But so far, there are no guidelines of how much money will be paid into the fund and who will qualify for payments.

Geoffrey E. Fitchew, the commission’s vice president, expressed concern at the slow pace of the “fast track” process and told the Times that some insurance companies are not adhering to the established criteria and are basing rejections on incomplete records.

Fitchew said that some companies may have classified policies confiscated by the Nazis from their Jewish owners as already paid.

The European insurers have also stalled in making public the names of all policyholders during the Holocaust era. Allianz, for example, has so far provided only 15,000 out of a possible 1.5 million names.Bobby Brown, the Israeli government representative on the commission, said in a court deposition this week that without full policyholder lists, “many survivors and their heirs will have no knowledge as to whether their relatives purchased any insurance, whether they are eligible to make a claim, or against what company such a claim should be made.”

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said he plans to raise the issue of rejected claims at the commission’s next meeting in June in London. “I have found my experience on the international commission as dispiriting,” he said. “It has been a struggle every step of the way.”

Waiting for the X


To please Holocaust survivors and Jewish advocacy groups or to please the insurance companies. That’s the question Gov. Gray Davis faces this week as Assembly Bill 600 sits on his desk, awaiting his approval.

Advocates for the measure — which includes the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — say if it becomes law, it would resolve outstanding Holocaust-era insurance claims.

Opponents of the bill — the Alliance of American Insurers — disagree. They maintain that the existing law already takes care of the policyholders — Holocaust survivors or their descendants. If Davis signs AB 600 into law, they claim, it will place an undue burden on insurance companies doing business in California.

Last year, then-Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a similar measure, but, using similar arguments, instead signed into law a bill that authorized the California Department of Insurance to investigate and recover unpaid Holocaust claims. Insurance companies are a flush source of campaign contributions in the state, contributing to both parties.

According to bill author Assemblyman Wally Knox, D-Los Angeles, AB 600 would “force insurance companies to disclose policyholders from the Holocaust era,” enabling those survivors who have a claim but no paperwork to start collecting against the old policy.

Once signed into law, insurance companies would be required within six months to disclose information to the California Department of Insurance. If they fail to do so, “then the state Department of Insurance would take away their authority to operate in the state,” says Knox.

As of Tuesday, Terri Smooke, Davis’ representative to the Jewish community, says she has received no word on whether Davis will sign the bill.

“I have absolutely no knowledge at this time, and as you, I’m very hopeful,” she said.

Davis has until midnight, Oct. 10, to sign the bill or veto it.

Arthur Stern, a Holocaust survivor, says the new bill provides a chance for Davis to show his “true colors.” Stern, who also heads up the Federation committee that oversees Holocaust-era insurance policies, says current law allows people to make claims against insurance companies such as Italy’s Assicurazioni Generali, but it still requires them to prove their claims or submit death certificates.

The problem is that only 3 percent to 5 percent of those entitled to money have the appropriate documents, says Stern. Most of the policyholders lost their papers or, in some cases, had them destroyed when they were rounded up by the Nazis. Nor do many of the descendants of those killed have death certificates; they were not issued in many death camps.

“The interests of the vast majority of the survivors and heirs are to have the names and addresses of the bearers published,” says Stern. “You can see from the insurance companies that this is the last thing they want to do. Why? Because it would reveal their fundamental dishonesty that they’ve sustained for 50 years.”

Stern himself has a case pending against insurance companies for a Holocaust-era policy, but he says if he recovers money, he will donate it to charity. For him, the issue is not money; it’s justice.

“I feel that the behavior of the insurance companies within the norms of our civilization is simply incredible,” he says. “Most of us abide by the rule that you don’t steal, at least not publicly, but the insurance companies have stolen publicly.”

Generali had brokered a deal in September 1998, whereby it would settle the claims of policyholders now covered under existing law, but it backed out when negotiators refused to have policyholders relinquish any future claims.

To Stern, that’s a deal that won’t help the majority of the survivors or their descendants.

“The insurance companies would like to make a global settlement,” he says. “The settlement would be several million dollars, but who would get the money? Those people who have the policies and sponsoring organizations.”


California Pressures Insurers to Settle Holocaust-era Claims


California’s top officials, legislators and private organizations are throwing their collective weight behind a series of measures aimed at pressuring European insurance companies into settling claims from the Holocaust era.

The charge is being led by Gov. Gray Davis and state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush. Speaking at a news conference last Friday, they pledged, in Davis’ words, to “begin a sacred pilgrimage to bring healing and hope to those victimized not once, but twice. We will do everything possible to seek justice for Holocaust victims, survivors and their families.”

At the conference, held in the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Davis also warned insurance companies “to pay now, or we guarantee you will pay more later.”

State Sen. Tom Hayden handed Quackenbush a petition that called for the suspension of 64 insurance companies practicing in California which have failed to honor Holocaust-era claims.

To enlist public support, Davis announced the formation of the California Holocaust Insurance Settlement Alliance, which consists of 25 organizations and individuals.

Quackenbush announced the creation of a Web site — www.insurance.ca.gov — and a toll-free phone line — (888) 234-4636 — to help potential claimants. His office is placing ads in some 30 general and Jewish newspapers in California, each ending with the line, “It’s about restitution, it’s about justice and it’s about time.”

The California Insurance Department will mail restitution application forms to Holocaust survivors and their families throughout the state.

The effort is intended primarily for the estimated 20,000 Holocaust survivors in California, but information is also available to the other 120,000 to 140,000 survivors throughout the United States. It is believed that there are up to 860,000 survivors worldwide.

In a series of hearings hosted by U.S. insurance commissioners last year, numerous witnesses charged that the European insurers have been stalling for 50 years to avoid payment on policies taken out by Jews in prewar years.

Based on its research into the unpaid policies, the World Jewish Congress has put their value at between $2 billion and $2.5 billion in today’s currency — 10 times their value in postwar dollars.

Recently enacted state laws have empowered California courts to deal with claims against European insurance companies doing business in the state and for officials to withdraw the licenses of uncooperative companies.

Currently, subsidiaries of six major insurance companies are collecting billions of dollars in premiums in California, Hayden said. They are: Assicurazioni Generali of Italy; Germany’s leading insurer, Allianz Holding; France’s AXA Group; and the Winterthur, Zurich and Basel insurance firms in Switzerland.

Quackenbush said he is hopeful that the California actions will encourage the six companies, plus 13 others operating in California, to reach a fair and speedy settlement.

“When they feel the heat, they’ll see the light,” he said.

Implicitly, Hayden said in an interview, some of the pressure is also directed at the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, which was to meet this week in London under former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

Hayden said both Eagleburger and Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, the Clinton administration’s point man on Holocaust reparation issues, have opposed action by individual states against European insurance companies.

But Hayden maintains that only the threat of losing lucrative business in California and other states will persuade the firms to settle the claims.

60th anniversary of Kristallnacht


November 1998 will mark the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Sixty years have passed since the beginning of one of human history’s darkest moments and even now we find ourselves still pursuing justice for the victims of the Holocaust.

Last week Gov. Pete Wilson signed into law Senate Bill 1530 authored by Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica). The bill calls upon the California Department of Insurance to investigate and assist Holocaust survivors in obtaining unpaid insurance claims. Under this measure, insurers that refuse to pay valid claims would face the loss of their license to do business in California. We applaud Sen. Hayden for bringing this important issue before the people of California and the governor for seeing the importance of the issue.

SB 1530 is an important first step. Unfortunately, Gov. Wilson vetoed Assembly Bill 1715 (written by Wally Knox), legislation that would have required the establishment of an insurance policy registry by those insurance companies that handled the bulk of European insurance business between 1920 and 1945.

Additionally, AB 1715 would have revoked the license of any insurance company (or its subsidiary) operating in California if this essential information was not made publicly available. Because so many years have passed since the Holocaust and so many insurance policies were lost (or even discarded by heirs who believed them worthless), the creation of such a registry and its widespread availability is absolutely necessary for beneficiaries and their heirs to determine that their families indeed had obtained personal and/or business insurance policies that have remained unclaimed.

Here’s what we ask of insurance companies: Show us your lists of names of insurance policy holders and beneficiaries! Make them available on the Internet, publish them in the newspapers and demonstrate that your corporations believe in justice!

There are some people who know their parents or grandparents had insurance policies. Some may even have documentation. Sen. Hayden’s legislation will assist these people, but the vast majority of survivors and heirs, now 50 years after the war’s end, do not know if such policies even existed and, if so, who the beneficiaries were. The European insurance companies, which wrote those policies in pre-war years, do have that documentation. Now they can right a wrong by publishing the names of policyholders and beneficiaries!

In California, the Italian Generali Insurance Co. and the Equitable Insurance Co. (a subsidiary of the French AXA Insurance Co.) have been involved in lobbying the state Legislature in connection with wartime insurance policies. It is time for them and for others, such as the German Allianz A.G. (who operates in California via its Fireman’s Fund subsidiary), the Swiss Zurich, Baloise and Winterthur insurance companies to come clean and make public the names of those who had policies with them or their subsidiaries. Then justice will be served, the wrongs of the past made right. Insurance companies, show us your lists! Let justice prevail.


Arthur Stern is the chair of the Commission on World Jewry. Michael Hirschfeld is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee.

Community Briefs


Telethon Time

Chabad returns to the air for an 18th year

The Chabad Telethon — that unique mix of caring, sharing and good production values — returns to the small screen this Sunday, Aug. 30, from 5 p.m. to midnight on UPN Channel 13.

This year’s telethon, the 18th in the organization’s 30-year history here, aims to equal or surpass last year’s effort, which raised close to $4 million. The money helps fund Chabad’s wide range of social-service and educational programs, including the Chabad drug-rehabilitation center, project PRIDE drug-prevention centers, a homeless program, educational outreach programs on college campuses and in local communities, hospital chaplaincy, new-immigrant programs and crisis counseling. Much of the money is raised locally and spent locally, say Chabad officials, although the telethon is also broadcast in San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York, Miami and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Rabbi Borruch Shlomo Cunin, West Coast Chabad director

Longtime host Jan Murray, above, is scheduled for an appearance, but Fyvush Finkel will emcee this year.

The telethon began in 1980 as a one-time event to raise funds to rebuild the West Coast Chabad headquarters, which had been destroyed by a fire that killed three people. Many of those whom Chabad had helped over the years turned out to lend their support, and the idea of an annual telethon took hold.

Eighteen years and millions of dollars later, the telethon has become a kind of Los Angeles institution, for Jews and non-Jews.

Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, West Coast director of Chabad, is the man most responsible for infusing the telethon with its trademark spirit. The dancing rabbis, the black frock coats, schmaltzy jokes and ample Yiddishisms provide what for many people is their strongest annual dose of Jewishness.

Jews who would never go to synagogue, much less to one of Chabad’s 60 centers or 48 schools and social-service facilities statewide, find themselves drawn to the telethon. The mix of Hollywood glitz and Hassidic fervor, odd as it may seem, is strangely entertaining. And moving. The program, which takes some four months to produce, presents the stories of people helped by Chabad — homeless single mothers sheltered, infants with crippling diseases supported, drug addicts rehabilitated.

Since the mid-1970s, according to Chabad literature, more than 500 men have been treated at the Chabad National Residential Drug Rehabilitation Center in Los Angeles. The organization’s 23 community-based drug-prevention information centers in the United States and Canada have dispensed information and materials to more than 40,000 schoolchildren annually, and more than 2,800 students have enrolled in Chabad’s West Coast schools, which include 26 day and Hebrew schools, ranging from preschool to college.

The money does not go to support Chabad Lubavitch activities in Israel, according to a Chabad spokesman.

Among those scheduled to appear on this year’s telethon, hosted by Fyvush Finkel, are: Steve Allen, Oscar de la Hoya, Tony Danza, Regis Philbin, Estelle Getty, Itzhak Perlman, James Coburn, Tommy Lasorda, Sid Caesar, Gene Wilder, Edward James Olmos and Jon Voight. Warner Bros. producer Jerry Weintraub is the longtime telethon chairman. — Staff Report


Brushing Up On Your Yiddish

Three years ago, Mel Rogow didn’t speak a word of Yiddish. He was an attorney who had learned Korean to communicate with his clients.

Then the memories of World War II began to catch up with him. In 1942, Rogow jumped overboard as his ship was torpedoed by German subs; after the war, he was so shaken by news of the Holocaust that he was never able to read books or watch films about the Shoah.

Then, in 1995, he decided to do something in memory of the victims, something to ensure Jewish continuity. He began studying Yiddish and the works of great Yiddish authors such as Y.L. Peretz.

This weekend, Rogow is coordinator of a bilingual conference of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs, which for the first time is meeting in Los Angeles. “Yiddish Goes West,” Aug. 27-30 at UCLA, will draw some 250 participants and 30 world-class lecturers on topics from Yiddish theater to Yiddish vocabulary on love and sex. You can catch the Second Avenue Klezmer Ensemble, learn about the history of the Bund or Yiddish on the web. The keynote speaker is Professor Eugene Orenstein of McGill University. The Westside Jewish Community Center is co-sponsoring the conference.

For information, call Mel Rogow at (213) 939-2193. — Naomi Pfefferman , Entertainment Editor


Holocaust Filmmakers Sought

“Unzere Kinder (Our Children),” the last Yiddish film made in Poland, will be featured at the upcoming Yiddishkayt Los Angeles festival, and its organizers are searching the world for anyone who had a part in making the 1946 film.

“Unzere Kinder” was one of the first films to deal fully with the Holocaust, and its “actors” were actual survivors, primarily orphaned children of the Helenovek Children’s Home near Lodz.

For the Yiddishkayt festival from Oct. 17-25, attorney Barry Fisher, working with the Polish government, hopes to bring the film’s surviving creators and cast members to Los Angeles, particularly those now living in the United States.

The recently restored film is described as a psychodrama, with touches of black humor. Anyone who was connected with it is requested to contact Barry A. Fisher, 1888 Century Park East, Suite 1750, Los Angeles, CA 90067. Phone number is (310) 557-1077, or fax (310) 557-0770. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor


European Insurance Companies Move Toward Reparation

Five major European insurance companies have committed themselves to work with American state officials, Jewish organizations and Israel to provide quick and fair payment of Holocaust-era life and property insurance claims.

Allianz AG of Germany, AXA/Equitable of France and three Swiss companies — Zurich Group, Basler Leben and Winterthur — signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Monday, announced California Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.

The MOU provides for creation of an independent international commission to adjudicate claims by Holocaust survivors and heirs of victims.

Quackenbush said that he expects the commission to be named and to start its work in two months, with the goal of resolving all claims within two years.

Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, which recently settled a class-action suit for $100 million, has signaled its intent to sign the MOU. Quackenbush said that he expects nine other insurance companies, named in various litigations, to fall in line shortly.

The commission will deal only with individual claims, not class-action suits, and will award actual damages but not punitive damages.

In cases in which no heirs can be found, the money will go to Holocaust-related and humanitarian organizations or institutions.

The commission is to be made up of 12 members and a chairperson, including three American insurance commissioners and representatives of European insurance companies, the World Jewish Congress, World Jewish Restitution Organization and Israel.

The California official said that he expects the three slots assigned to state insurance commissioners to be filled by himself, Neil Levin of New York, and Bill Nelson of Florida, whose states have the largest concentrations of Jewish residents and Holocaust survivors.

“There is no body of international law pertaining to individual insurance claims, so the voluntary adherence of the European insurance companies to the new commission is an important step,” said Quackenbush.– Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Pursuing Holocaust Claims


A new sophisticated computer database may help the heirs of Holocaust victims receive the benefits of insurance policiestaken out by long-deceased relatives.

Major European insurance companies have refused torelease benefits to such policies, believing them heir-less. Butparticipants at the conference of the Association of JewishGenealogical Societies held in Century City last week announced thatthe large scale database project, called “The Family Tree of theJewish People,” will help track and document the survivingdesecndents of Holocaust victims. AJGS and its president, Dr.Sallyann Sack, are already involved in the project, along with theDouglas E. Goldman Genealogy Center at the Museum of the Diaspora inTel Aviv. Washington state Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn, whohelped lead the initial investigation into Holocaust survivors’claims, said the database will, “link families around the world tothis pursuit of justice.”– Staff Report

Community


‘David Fighting a CorporateGoliath’

The heirs of a Holocaust victim and policyholder sueItaly’s giant Generali Insurance Company for five decades ofrebuffing their claims

By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Above, Regina, Moshe and Edith Stern; Below,from left, William Palmer, General Council for the CaliforniaInsurance Commission, with Anne, Lisa and Allan Stern and CaliforniaInsurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush. Photo below by Albert J. Winn

One of Europe’s largest insurance companies hasbeen hit with subpoenas by the state of California and a $135 millionsuit by a private family for allegedly stonewalling demands forpayment on policies taken out by Holocaust victims andsurvivors.

In the double-barreled action, announced at a Feb.4 news conference, the Generali Insurance Company (AssicurazioniGenerali) of Trieste, Italy, was charged with five decades of evasiveaction to avoid its responsibilities to Jewish policyholders andtheir heirs.

California Insurance Commissioner ChuckQuackenbush said that after inviting Generali representatives tothree separate public hearings, and getting no response, he hasissued subpoenas to four top officials at Generali’s New Yorkheadquarters to appear at an investigatory hearing on Feb. 19 in SanFrancisco.

“We’re 50 years behind and wasting time, which iswhy I am ordering Generali to come forward…. I demand a publicaccounting,” said Quackenbush.

If Generali fails to cooperate, the commissionerwarned, he was ready to “pull their license” to do business inCalifornia, which currently accounts for $22 million of the $125million the company earns in the United States.

A Generali spokesman, Dan Leonard, reached byphone, said that the company was ready to meet with Quackenbush in aprivate session, as it had with insurance commissioners of otherstates. Leonard added that Generali could not meet before the media,because it is a defendant on similar charges in a class-action suitpending in a New York federal court.

The descendants of Moshe “Mor” Stern and his wife,Regina, gave dramatic, and at times emotional, testimony at the newsconference at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Stern, an affluent wine and spirits producer inUzshghorod, Hungary, had six sons and one daughter. Between 1929 and1939, he took out large insurance policies (and a dowry policy forhis daughter) through the Prague office of Generali.

He prepaid premiums through 1944, on policiesworth about $1.5 million. That sum, with accrued interest, is nowworth $10 million, the heirs believe.

Moshe Stern, his wife and three of their sonsperished in Auschwitz. The couple’s oldest son, Adolf, was liberatedin Buchenwald. One month after the war’s end, in June 1945, AdolfStern made his way to the Generali office in Prague to claim hisfamily’s life and annuity insurance proceeds.

His reception by the insurance company’sofficials, as described in an affidavit, was “less than kind.” Theaffidavit further stated: “They mocked me. They were arrogant. Theystated that I would have to produce a death certificate and copies ofthe relevant insurance policies before they would process theclaims.

“I explained that Hitler did not pass out deathcertificates and that all family insurance policy documentation wasconfiscated by the Third Reich. They declined my request to retrievefrom Generali’s own files the insurance and annuity policies thatthey sold to my family. The officials said that Generali could nothelp me, and they had me forcibly removed from the premises by asecurity guard. I was humiliated.”

Over the ensuing five decades, the survivingchildren of Moshe Stern and his grandchildren, living in the UnitedStates, Israel and Great Britain, repeatedly petitioned Generali.They were constantly rebuffed with claims that no records of thepolicies could be found, that the assets of Generali’s Prague branchhad been nationalized, and that the time limit for claims hadexpired.

Then, in 1996, by a fluke, the Sterns found, in alarge Generali warehouse in Trieste, jammed with old policies, a copyof one policy issued to Moshe Stern in 1929. A few months earlier,Generali had affirmed that no such policy existed.

At the news conference, Alan Stern, a Los Angelesbusinessman and grandson of Moshe Stern, and his wife, Lisa, anattorney, described their family’s long legal odyssey, which hetermed a battle of “David fighting a corporate Goliath.”

Lisa Stern, holding up a piece of stone from anAuschwitz crematorium, described Generali’s actions as “the financialcrime of the century.”

Alan Stern’s aunt, Anne Stern, herself a survivorof Theresienstadt, pleaded in a tear-choked voice, “We cannot waitany longer; we beg all of you to help so that justice may bedone.”

Their attorney, William M. Shernoff, a well-knownexpert on insurance consumer rights, said that the present suit, inwhich he is seeking $10 million in actual damages and $125 million inpunitive damages, “is one of the most abusive in my 25 years ofpractice.” He also believes that the case represents the largest “badfaith” suit filed against any insurance company.

Shernoff said that because of the age and physicalcondition of some of the plaintiffs, a hearing in the suit could beaccelerated under California law. He hopes that a trial date will beset within four months and the case submitted to a jury within oneyear.

Generali spokesman Leonard said that the companyhad not received a copy of the Stern suit and that he, therefore,could not comment on it.

Generali, whose net worth is put at $4.3 billion,has a long history of involvement with the Jewish community andIsrael. It was founded in 1831 by a group of Jewish merchants inTrieste and quickly established branches in the major cities of theold Hapsburg Empire.

It employed thousands of Jewish agents and,according to Quackenbush, wrote 80 percent of all policies taken outby Jews in Central and Eastern Europe.

In the 1930s, Generali helped found Migdal, nowthe largest insurance company in Israel, and, last year, it paid $320million to buy a controlling interest in Migdal. According to AlanStern, Generali’s chairman of the board is Jewish.

At the time of the Migdal takeover, Generaliannounced establishment of a $12 million philanthropic fund, “inhonor of Generali policyholders who perished in the Holocaust.” Thecompany publicized the fund through large ads in Jewish newspapersand also established an information center for claimants.

Speakers at the news conference, however, observedthat even this gesture is suspect. For one, said Alan Stern, the onlymoney disbursed so far has been $1 million for advertisements.

In addition, attorney Shernoff stated in hisbrief, Generali, in making future disbursements from the fund,specifically denies any legal or moral obligation to do so andrequires recipients to forgo any future claims against thecompany.

In the separate class-action suit pending in NewYork — initiated with the assistance of the Bet Tzedek legal aidservice in Los Angeles — Generali is among 15 German, Swiss, Frenchand Italian insurance companies named. One of the largest is theGerman firm Allianz AG.

Most of the companies have operations andsubsidiaries in the United States and, thus, may be subject toAmerican courts. Rene Siemens, a lead attorney in the case, thinksthat, ultimately, claims against European insurance companies may runinto the billions of dollars and far exceed the claims of holders ofdormant accounts in Swiss banks.

In a related development, the Jewish TelegraphicAgency reported this week that a Holocaust Victims Insurance Act hasbeen introduced in Congress. The act would require European insurancecompanies to give a full accounting of policies taken out byHolocaust victims and survivors and mandate payments to theirheirs.

 

The Russians Are Coming

Émigrés overcome cultural differences andhardship to participate in Super Sunday

By Ruth Stroud,Staff Reporter

In the former Soviet Union, asking for charitymoney was a punishable offense. It isn’t surprising, then, thatRussian Jews who immigrate to the United States need some educationon the concept of tzedakah. Add this to the fact that most of themhave little money to take care of their own families’ needs, and itmakes sense that few former Soviet citizens would participate inSuper Sunday — the biggest fund-raising day for the JewishFederation’s United Jewish Fund.

But things are changing, says Maya Segal,resettlement coordinator for the Federation. More and moreRussian-born Jews are participating in this event, both as volunteersand as donors.

“At first, they’re afraid. They say, ‘How can Iask someone to give money,'” Segal says. But after they are trained,start working the phones, and see the response, their attitudechanges. “When their shift is over, they don’t want to leave,” shesays.

Next Sunday (Feb. 22), more than 40Russian-speaking volunteers are expected to gather at the SuperSunday “mega-site” — the Westside Jewish Community Center. Amongthem will be Alla Neyman, along with her husband, Afanasiy,19-year-old son Igor, and 17-year-old daughter Galina. Her mother,who will be 65 this year, has participated in the past and may comethis time as well.

The Neymans arrived in West Hollywood in February1992, after leaving their home near Minsk. Alla hasn’t forgotten howshe was helped by the Federation when she first arrived in theStates. The family didn’t have medical insurance, and a Federationcounselor put them in touch with a doctor. Alla found her first twojobs through the Jewish Vocational Service, a beneficiary of theFederation. One was a baby-sitting job, which her daughter hasinherited. Alla now works as a general office assistant in a CenturyCity law office, and her husband works at a security company nearby.Her children are no longer afraid to say they’re Jewish, and herdaughter plans to bring several friends with her to volunteer thisSuper Sunday.

Alla and her family first began making calls toother Russian-speaking Jews on Super Sunday a few years ago. It wasdifficult at first. “It’s hard to ask for money from people who don’thave a lot of money,” she said. “I just ask, ‘Please give us as muchas you can.’ Some of them do. Some don’t.” But Alla feels stronglythat “everyone who comes to this country has to do something becausewe got so much help.”

Alla’s neighbor, Galina Tsitrina, who also arrivedin February 1992, and became an American citizen last July, alsoplans to volunteer on Super Sunday. Like many other Russian-speakingJews, Galina, 63, and her 86-year-old mother came to the UnitedStates in search of religious freedom. Her grandfather was a rabbibefore World War II, but in Galina’s native Gomel, like elsewhere inthe USSR, it was illegal to practice Judaism. On Passover, Galinaremembers, no matzo was available, so her mother ate onlypotatoes.

Upon their arrival in the United States, Galinaand her mother received SSI benefits, with the assistance of theFederation. (Galina is unable to work for medical reasons.)

On Jewish holidays, Alla Feldman from JewishFamily Service of Los Angeles arranged for the Tsitrinas to celebratewith American families. Like Alla Neyman, Galina says that she wantsto do something to show how grateful she is for the help she hasreceived and to aid other Jews. “I became free from the Russiangovernment,” she says. “On Super Sunday, I collect money for Israel.It’s very important to me because I am a Jew.”

Facts About Super Sunday

What:

It’s the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’single-most important fund-raising day of the year.

When:

Sunday, Feb. 22.

Who:

5,000 volunteers reach out via telephone, directmail and face-to-face meetings with 50,000 people. From preteen to80-plus, all ages can be volunteers.

How Much:

More than $4 million is raised annually in asingle day for the United Jewish Fund.

Why:

Super Sunday helps the Federation and itsbeneficiary agencies support Jewish education, immigration, synagogueprograms, Jewish camps and recreation programs; combat hunger,disease, disability, and drug and alcohol addiction in Los Angeles;and assist Jewish organizations nationally, and the American JointDistribution Committee and Jewish Agency for Israelinternationally.

Where:

Four sites in greater Los Angeles.

Westside Jewish Community Center

5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles

(213) 761-8319

Jewish Federation South Bay Council

22410 Palos Verdes Blvd., Torrance

(310) 540-2631

Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance

22622 Vanowen Street, West Hills

(818) 587-3200

Western Region

University Synagogue

11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles

(310) 828-9521

Taking a Pluralistic Path

‘The Pathways in Jewish Spirituality’ series will featurelectures by Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionistrabbis

By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

In a path-breaking outreach to potential converts,rabbis representing four different streams of Judaism will join in aprogram to elucidate the philosophies and practices of theirrespective denominations.

“This pluralistic outreach program is unique inJewish history and is based on the premise that God did not inventdenominations,” says Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. The rabbi, who ispraised, and sometimes criticized, for his innovative approaches torevitalizing Judaism, said, “I believe that Jews by Choice should beable to choose the beit din (rabbinic court) of whatever branch ofJudaism they find attractive and to choose whatever form of Jewishreligious life they find compelling.”

Schulweis, the spiritual leader of Valley BethShalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino, which is hosting theprogram, believes that the cooperative venture will send an importantmessage not only to potential converts but to the entire Jewishcommunity.

“Given the increasing denominational factionalismthat has broken out and threatens to factionalize Judaism, it isimportant to demonstrate, and not by rhetoric alone, that we are onepeople, that God is one and the Torah is one,” Schulweis says.

“There are many ways of understanding thatoneness; there are 70 faces to the Torah, and we are not amonolithic, sectarian entity. Hopefully, this project will spreadthroughout the country and make a modest contribution to the visionof unity in diversity.”

“The Pathways in Jewish Spirituality” series offive lectures will feature presentations by leading Orthodox,Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis. The lectures areopen to the public at no charge and will start on Feb. 25 with anintroduction to Judaism by Schulweis.

Speakers on subsequent Wednesday evenings will beRabbis Abner Weiss (Orthodox), Daniel Gordis (Conservative), ArnoldRachlis (Reconstructionist) and Steven Jacobs (Reform).

The “Pathways” series will be followed by 12additional lectures on “The Wisdom of Judaism,” in which differentrabbis and scholars will explore the teachings, ritual and meaning ofJudaism, its relationship to Christianity, and the impact of theHolocaust. There will be a fee for attendance, by individual lectureor for the entire series.

The 17 lectures in the two programs, coordinatedby Rabbis Edward and Nina Bieber Feinstein of the host congregation,are by no means limited to potential converts, Schulweis stresses.Equally welcome are Jews who seek a deeper connection with theirreligion, or non-Jews interested in a better understanding of Judaismwhile remaining in their own faith.

“What we are aiming for is to broaden the circleof inclusion, to reach out and to reach in,” says Schulweis.

In preparation for the two lecture programs,hundreds of Valley Beth Shalom congregants have been participating ina Mentor-Keruv study program. The mentors will befriend participantsin the lecture series, host them for Sabbath or Passover meals,accompany them to Jewish events, and sit with them in the synagogueto acquaint them with the flow of the service.

The mentors will gain as much as they will give,Schulweis believes. “There is no better way to learn Judaism than toteach it,” he says.

For program information and registration, call(818) 788- 6000, ext. 655.

 

BeverlyHills Confidential

The city is hardly all glamorous, all wealthy or allJewish

By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

When 19-year-old Stephanie Middler, a product ofBeverly Hills schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, is askedby new acquaintances where she is from, she answers, “LosAngeles.”

“If I say I’m from Beverly Hills, I getstereotyped right away — you know, rich, superficial and spoiled,”says Middler, who graduated from Beverly Hills High School a year agoand is now a music major at USC.

People, from Bombay to Buenos Aires, who haven’tbeen within a thousand miles of California, know all about BeverlyHills High. Thanks to the TV melodrama “Beverly Hills 90210,” theyare certain that the town’s teen-agers talk only about sex, clothesand cars. Films such as “Pretty Woman” and “Down and Out in BeverlyHills” prove that the kids’ parents readily flaunt their ostentatiouswealth and sexual escapades.

The people who know Beverly Hills close up resentthe stereotyping of their city, and their sensitivities are sometimesexpressed in a kind of reverse ostentation.

“Many kids from affluent homes will dress down sothat they won’t stand out, including my daughter, who buys herclothes at a thrift shop,” says Middler’s mother, Lillian Raffel, whohas been a member and president of the board of education for thelast six years.

On the other hand, Middler says that she had a fewclassmates who never wore the same outfit twice during the schoolyear.

Naturally, there are some pressures on BeverlyHills youngsters, such as living up to the expectations of highlysuccessful, hard-driving parents, but the same holds true forself-made wealthy families anywhere else, says Dr. Jeff Blume.

Blume, a psychologist at the Maple CounselingCenter, has worked extensively with Beverly Hills students andparents, and he believes that “it’s a very large stretch” to linkMonica Lewinsky’s present White House predicament to her BeverlyHills background.

The assessment is emphatically seconded by MilkenCommunity High School President Dr. Bruce Powell, who has taught inand administered Jewish and public schools in Los Angeles for thepast 28 years.

Comparing the backgrounds of Bill Clinton andLewinsky, Powell notes that the president grew up in a poorProtestant family in Hope, Ark., and Monica, in a wealthy Jewishfamily in Beverly Hills.

“If their alleged relationship actually existed,they arrived there by making individual ethical choices,” saysPowell. “The notion that the Beverly Hills milieu makes for eithermoral or immoral people is nonsense.”

As in most stereotypes, there are kernels of truthin the Beverly Hills image, but the “golden ghetto” of the fabulouslyrich and famous no longer exists. The gap between illusion andreality is nicely illustrated by the fact that television’s “BeverlyHills 90210,” which has done so much to feed the fables, is shot notin Beverly Hills but mainly in the prosaic town of Torrance.

What about Beverly Hills’ storied wealth? Far frombeing the richest city in the world, Beverly Hills placed eighth inLos Angeles County alone, and 83rd in the United States, according toa 1996 national survey of per capita income.

Veteran newsman Rudy Cole, who has covered thecity for 35 years, notes that in Beverly Hills, whose populationstands at 34,000, half the residents live in apartments andcondominiums rather than in palatial mansions.

“Very few residents will shop on Rodeo Drive, withits upscale stores,” says Cole. “We leave that to thetourists.”

Cole has also read the foreign reports about theglamorous beaches of Beverly Hills, an unlikely attraction in alandlocked community.

Contrary to common assumptions, Beverly Hills isnot an all-Jewish enclave, but is split about half-and-half betweenJews and non-Jews.

“Jews, however, are most active in civic andcharitable activities,” says Cole. “All five city councilmen areJewish, as are four of the five school board members.”

In any case, “even my non-Jewish classmates atBeverly Hills High knew about the Jewish holidays and understood whatJews are like,” says Middler. “It’s only since starting USC that Iget the feeling of being a minority.”

During the past two decades, there has been aheavy influx of foreign immigrants, many of whom will strain tightbudgets and live in one-room apartments to qualify their children forBeverly Hills’ excellent public schools.

Lillian Raffel of the board of education estimatesthat 45 percent of the current public-school students require Englishas a Second Language instruction. Their predominant home languagesare Farsi (Persian), Korean, Russian, Hebrew and Chinese.

If many Beverly Hills residents resent theHollywood version of their lifestyle, they admit that it’s not badfor business.

For instance, when Julia Roberts, as the hooker in”Pretty Woman,” cavorted in the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel,”tourists booked all the rooms for months on end,” says Cole.

Indeed, Beverly Hills’ enterprising Chamber ofCommerce has no scruples in playing up to the town’s popular image toattract free-spending visitors.

To mark the city’s 75th anniversary, the chamberthrew a party for “America’s most glamorous city,” which included afashion show with 1,100 models, and a gigantic cake studded with2,500 real diamonds.

Also featured was an homage to ostentatiousshopping, which described Beverly Hills as the kind of place “wheresomeone from London can call and get fingernail polish that matchesthe color of her Rolls Royce.”

Chefs from the Four Seasons Hotel stand infront of the one-and-a-half ton cake baked for Beverly Hills on theoccasion of the city’s 75th birthday

 

Community Briefs

Jackson Shares His Dream

By Shlomit Levy

Proclaiming, “When we dream together we change thewhole world!” Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke before large, appreciativeaudience at Temple Kol Tikvah Sun. night . The community forum washeld to celebrate the life of Jackson’s friend, the late RabbiAbraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Rabbi Heschelfaced extreme rejection in the Jewish community,” said Jackson, “andDr. King faced rejection in the black community.” Jackson said hisdream is for “one big tent America where all of us are in the tentand none are in the margins.”

Before his speech, Jackson held a press conferenceat which he expressed his support for President Bill Clinton and hiscondemnation of White House Independent counsel Kenenth Starr. Thepress conference was cut short by shouts from Anti-Defamation Leagueprotesters who demanded Jackson speak out against Minister LouisFarrakhan.

At the end of his lecture, Jackson made afundraising pitch for his Rainbow/PUSH Coaltion and asked hisappreciative audience to participate in the “Save the Dream” March onFeb. 23 in Los Angeles.

Rabbi Jacobs presented Jesse Jackson with Abraham JoshuaHeschel “The Prophets.” Photo by ShlomitLevy

 

A True Public Servant

Scott Svonkin, the 32-year-old chair of theValley Alliance’s JCRC, brings experience beyond his years and newideas

By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

Last fall, Scott Svonkin, now 32, became theyoungest chair of the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance’s JewishCommunity Relations Committee.

It wasn’t the first time he was the youngest atsomething: He was the country’s youngest professional tennis umpireat age 16. His political involvement started even earlier, when, at13, he campaigned for independent candidate John Anderson in the 1980presidential election. As a student at Cal State Northridge, Svonkinspearheaded the creation of a task force to deal with the problem ofhunger among students. On his 30th birthday, he raised money for acomedy benefit to support Hillel at Pierce and Valley colleges.Svonkin attended the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago,wearing a yarmulke with Clinton’s name hand-painted on by his olderbrother. It ended up in the Smithsonian.

Svonkin’s knack for getting noticed, and gettinginvolved, is a family trait. His mother, Paula, is the kosher catererat USC Hillel. His father, Stan, taught for years in East Los Angelesand was president of the family’s Alhambra synagogue. His oldestbrother is youth director at Valley Beth Israel; his second-oldestbrother, a professor at Cal State Los Angeles, is the former Far Westregion director of United Synagogue Youth; his oldest sister isactive in her synagogue. Svonkin’s great-great-uncle was a shamas atCongregation Talmud Torah on Breed Street in Boyle Heights.

Since he’s come aboard as chair of the ValleyAlliance JCRC, the organization has grown younger — with the averageage now in the 30s, instead of the 50s and 60s. That was a primarygoal of Svonkin’s, both at the JCRC and at the Federation/ValleyAlliance, where he is also a board member. “It’s time for theestablished leaders to mentor us young people,” he says. “It’s nottime for them to disappear, but it’s time for them to hand over thereins.”

In December, Svonkin took a group of 25 JCRC youngleaders on a trek to City Hall to find out how things work downtown.Mayor Riordan showed up unexpectedly to lunch with them. Also onSvonkin’s JCRC watch: A rabbinical advisory council was formed todiscuss issues affecting communities in the Valley Alliance’sfive-valley territory, and a Hispanic-Jewish women’s dialogue is inplace.

Another of Svonkin’s aims is to strengthen therelationship between the Jewish community and electedrepresentatives, particularly those who represent portions of thefive-valley area. “I want to make sure that whoever is elected isaware of the issues that face our community.”

Rebuilding public education and fostering closerrelations with other ethnic and religious communities is foremostamong those issues, he believes.

Svonkin’s own political involvement includesserving for two years in Mayor Tom Bradley’s office as assistantWestside area coordinator. He was appointed to Los Angeles CountyCommission on Insurance last fall by Los Angeles County SupervisorZev Yaroslavsky. He is also a member of AIPAC’s Congressional ClubExecutive Committee.

Svonkin works at Prudential HealthCare in WoodlandHills, where he’s been the past 6 1/2 years. Most recently, he wasoperations manager for the New York sales office, which he convincedto donate 250 computers to the local public schools.

SWC Film Nominated for Oscar

The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s film “The Long WayHome” has been nominated for an Academy Award in the documentaryfeature category.

Through archival footage and interviews, the filmdramatizes the fate of post-Holocaust refugees between 1945 and 1948,and their desperate attempts to reach the Jewish homeland.

“The Long Way Home” was written and directed byMark Jonathan Harris. It was produced by the Wiesenthal Center’sMoriah Films division, under Rabbi Marvin Hier and RichardTrank.

The center’s first production, “Genocide,” won anOscar as best documentary in 1981. — TomTugend, Contributing Writer

Cutting Down to Size

The Federation restructures its board of directors and executivecommittee for the first time in nearly 40 years

By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles hasapproved the first restructuring of its board of directors andexecutive committee in nearly 40 years.

Born of a 1959 merger between the Jewish CommunityCouncil and the United Jewish Welfare Fund, the organization hadnever resolved the issue of how its board should be formed. Createdout of the two boards, it kept accommodating itself to communitychanges, growing to its current size of about 200 members. Over thepast 18 months, a Strategic Planning Implementation Committee,chaired by former Federation President Irwin Field, has created whatField says is a board seated through “a unified nominatingprocess.”

Key changes will include:

* Initially, a smaller board of 159 members; afterfive years, 149.

* A smaller executive committee of 39 (sometimes40). Currently, it can be as large as 60.

* Specifically named seats on the board to includerepresentatives of the four major streams of Judaism — one each forthe Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist movements –as well as two seats for the Hebrew Union College and theUAHC.

* Five criteria for nominations, including anannual gift to the United Jewish Fund and active Federationinvolvement.

In reducing the size of the board, the aim was notto exclude people but to create a body that is “more representativeof what Los Angeles looks like today and will begin to look liketomorrow,” Field said.

The current policy-making process of theFederation is sometimes cumbersome, he said: “It takes a long timebefore anything moves.”

In the future, things may speed up somewhat, withthe executive committee able to take some actions that will notrequire board approval, although the board will still havejurisdiction over critical matters, such as major policy changes andimportant financial transactions.

The reorganization is expected to go into effectin September, when the next Federation president, Lionel Bell, takesthe helm.

Bet Tzedek Legal Services Dinner

Seen at the annual Bet Tzedek Legal Servicesdinner at the Century Plaza Hotel were (from left): honoree EliBroad, chairman and CEO of SunAmerica Inc.; Vice President Al Gore,who presented an award to Broad for his support of Bet Tzedek; JayWintrob, president of the Bet Tzedek Board of Directors; and DavidLash, executive director of Bet Tzedek. Also honored at the dinnerwere the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, whichreceived the Commitment to Justice Award.

Supporting Their Claims


California’s insurance commissioner has promised to use the power of his office to help thousands of the state’s residents collect on unpaid insurance policies stemming from the Holocaust era.

Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush gave the pledge during an often dramatic hearing on Monday at the Ronald Reagan State Building in downtown Los Angeles.

Six Holocaust survivors or descendants of Nazi victims testified at the hearing, relating how leading European insurance companies had stonewalled their efforts to collect on life and property insurance policies taken out before World War II.

One witness, Freddy Jackson (whose story The Jewish Journal reported in its May 2 issue), told of an elaborate runaround by the Italian insurance giant Assicurazioni Generali in which his claim on the policy taken out by his father, killed in Auschwitz, was bucked from one European country to another for decades.

The experiences of many of the insurance claimants parallel those of depositors trying to collect on dormant Swiss bank accounts, but the sums at stake may be much larger.

Attorney Rene Siemens, representing the petitioners at the hearing, said in a telephone interview that insurance claims across the United States and the world could run into billions of dollars.

The Los Angeles hearing was part of a nationwide effort by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners to aid claimants by exerting their regulatory powers over the American affiliates and subsidiaries of the targeted European insurance companies. A task force of the association has held hearings in Skokie, Ill., and Miami, and plans further hearings in Los Angeles, Seattle and New York.

At the same time, a national class-action suit on similar claims against the European insurance companies is being heard in New York federal court. In this lawsuit, plaintiffs charge that “in many instances, proceeds from the insurance policies of the victims of Nazi persecution were used to finance and extend the war or otherwise enrich Nazi war criminals.”

After the witnesses’ testimony in Los Angeles, Quackenbush said that he recognized representatives of the insurance companies in the hearing room and asked them to step forward. None took up the invitation.

However, a public relations representative for Italy’s Generali distributed a statement. It noted that the firm had been founded in 1831 by a group of Jewish merchants and that an affiliate, Migdal, is Israel’s largest insurance company.

The statement added that Generali is in the process of establishing a $12 million philanthropic fund in Israel in memory of the company’s policyholders who perished in the Holocaust.

An attorney for Germany’s Allianz AG, also named as a defendant in the New York lawsuit, told the Los Angeles Times that his client had done nothing wrong, but had set up a help line and was retaining an American accounting firm to review its files.

A second Los Angeles hearing will be held on Jan. 13 at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where more witnesses will be heard. Quackenbush said that he will ask representatives of the insurance companies to testify, and if they decline, he will issue subpoenas for their appearance.

Siemens’ law firm, Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, working with Bet Tzedek Legal Services of Los Angeles, has set up a nationwide help line for potential claimants at (800) 899-4341.

In addition, staff counsel Leslie Tick of the state Insurance Department can be contacted for information or by persons wishing to be heard at the Jan. 13 hearing. She can be reached at (415) 538-4190, or by e-mail at tickl@insurance.ca.gov.

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