Survivors Sue Claims Commission


Survivors are suing the commission on Nazi-era insurance claims, a commissioner has called for the resignation of its chief and Jewish officials handling the claims acknowledge serious problems.

But they also say there probably isn’t a better way to dole out the claims.

The anger and frustration some lawmakers and survivors feel toward the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims peaked last week when several survivors filed suit, claiming the organization was delaying payments.

California’s insurance commissioner, John Garamendi, a member of the commission, later joined the suit and called for the resignation of the commission’s chairman, former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

Survivors Jack Brauns, Manny Steinberg and Si Frumkin, all Los Angeles-area residents, charged that the ICHEIC improperly delayed or denied payments totaling more than $1 billion on policies held by the survivors or heirs of those who perished under Nazi rule.

"This is a commission that is supposed to help survivors," said William Shernoff, the plaintiffs’ lawyer. "But from what we see, they are helping the insurance companies more than survivors."

They also are seeking Eagleburger’s resignation, saying his salary — which they estimate at over $300,000 — is paid for by the insurance companies. The plaintiffs believe Eagleburger is working in the insurance companies’ interests.

"This is blood money stolen from survivors," said Frumkin, chair of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jewry.

For his part, Eagleburger says he has no intention of resigning. His aide, Anais Haase, said that time and resources planned for investigating claims would be diverted to defending against the lawsuit if the survivors persist in fighting them.

"We don’t believe we are mistreating survivors or their heirs," Haase said. "We offer the only option available at no cost to survivors and their heirs."

The plaintiffs are asking the ICHEIC to place more pressure on Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali to divulge more unpaid life insurance policies. The ICHEIC has published 9,000 names of Generali policyholders, but the claimants suggest the list could exceed 100,000 policies.

Shernoff said Holocaust survivors and their heirs should also maintain the right to use litigation to gain money owed them, rather than working through the ICHEIC.

The suit was filed under California’s Unfair Business Practices statute, but it’s unclear whether the ICHEIC can legally be defined as a business.

A Generali official in New York called the lawsuit baseless and misleading, saying that thousands of claimants "have and will continue to be paid and offered generous amounts through ICHEIC, which is supported by leading Jewish Holocaust restitution organizations and the State of Israel."

Stuart Eizenstat, a special representative for Holocaust issues in the Clinton administration, said the lawsuits could wreck the ICHEIC system if the suit nullifies the agreements the commission has reached with the insurance agencies.

"It continues to cast a cloud of debate over the exercise," he said. "It diverts energy and attention from filling claims."

Eizenstat said he appreciates that the suit is an expression of frustration over the slow process of paying claims. But he and others contend that the insurance companies, not the ICHEIC, have made the process more difficult by withholding names.

Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, agreed.

"There is no bad faith here," he said of the ICHEIC. "There is bad information after 50 years."

Singer acknowledged that the organization has had trouble completing its mission.

"ICHEIC has a mammoth task, and it’s bigger than we ever thought it was going to be," Singer said. "We couldn’t have known it at the time."

He suggested an ombudsman might be able to bridge the gap between the ICHEIC and the Holocaust survivors.

The ICHEIC, founded in 1998 by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, has had some problems in the past two years. Eagleburger threatened to resign last year after difficulty securing cooperation from German insurance companies.

Congressional representatives and others also have chastised Eagleburger and the commission for its slow progress, especially considering the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors.

The ICHEIC also has been criticized for spending $56 million in five years, and Eizenstat agreed that the organization cannot be considered a model of efficiency.

But both Eizenstat and Singer defended Eagleburger.

"Larry has earned every nickel and then some," Eizenstat said. "He’s had to undergo hell to bring the parties together."

California Gov. Gray Davis issued a statement Saturday accusing the ICHEIC of "not meeting its mission.

"The system does not work, claims are not being investigated and survivors are not being paid,” Davis said in the statement.

Edwin Black and Tom Tugend contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

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.”

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.