‘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."

Planning Ahead Can Save on Health Care


Eva, 74 and a widow, was a healthy and independent woman until she went shopping one day last December and was mugged. She was attacked with a screwdriver and thrown to ground, breaking her shoulder in four places.

"I ended up on the sidewalk, totally helpless," said Eva, who lives in Westwood and prefers to not give her last name. "I went from being very active to being disabled. My recovery was very painful, and I am still not done."

Eva was hospitalized for a month, and when she came home, she found that she needed nursing care and help doing basic tasks around the house, such as bathing and getting dressed.

"A nursing home just didn’t appeal to me," Eva said, and so she found home care. The cost of such care was between $17 and $20 an hour, and Eva needed it at least 16 hours a day for six months.

The cost of her care could have totaled in excess of $55,000 for those six months. However, Eva was able to avoid the expenditure because she had a long-term-care insurance policy that she bought the year before. The premium cost $2,273.

Because elder care can be an enormous drain on an individual’s resources, with nursing homes costing in excess of $100 a day and home care costing even more, planning ahead and buying long-term-care insurance is one way of preventing the costs from being too overwhelming.

For some in the Jewish community, long-term-care insurance — and particularly the home-care policies — can also have a religious significance. They see it as a facet of the mitzvah of Kibud Av V’em (honoring one’s parents), because it allows children to have peace of mind about their aging parents living out their last years with dignity.

In a 1998 article written by Joel Schwartz in the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists Newsletter, Schwartz argued that according to Torah, home care is preferable to nursing-home care, because institutionalized living brings with it a certain loss of honor. While some nursing homes are cheery and bright, others may be drab, unfriendly and, in some cases, even detrimental to the health of those who need care.

Government regulations require nursing homes to provide 3.2 hours of care per patient per 24 hours. In some cases, a nursing home might cut corners because it does not hire enough staff to meet the requirement.

In such a scenario, which some experts in the field say is not uncommon, patients who are severely incapacitated will suffer. They said bed-ridden patients might develop bedsores, because they are not turned often enough, and incontinent patients might be diapered to save labor costs.

Few people want their parents to suffer such problems, but many with aging parents have their own families to provide for and do not have the time or resources to take proper care of their parents themselves.

For many people, long-term-care insurance provides the answer to the problem. Although the premiums might appear high — and even seem useless if the person paying them is healthy — they can end up saving people tens of thousand of dollars if the need for long-term care should arise.

Karen Shoff, a Santa Monica gerontologist, insurance agent and author of "There’s No Place Like a Nursing Home: Four Powerful Steps That Will Change Your Life" (Invisible Ink, 2002), believes that planning for one’s physical retirement is as important as planning for one’s financial retirement. Shoff advises people to start planning for their twilight years in their 50s and 60s, so that they will be able to avoid both nursing homes and the costs involved with home care.

Shoff’s plan involves buying a long-term-care policy, appointing a geriatric-care manager who can assist with legal and medical issues and find services, making a living will that spells out how a person wants to be cared for in the event of an illness and finding an ally who will help carry out the plans.

"You can’t wait until the fire’s there, and people are tearing their hair out," she said. "You need to plan ahead logically."

However, there are some who shy away from long-term-care insurance because they see it as unnecessary to pay premiums above and beyond health insurance and Medicare, which they believe will cover most emergencies. Furthermore, many people argue that, depending on the circumstances, nursing homes can provide better service and offer a wider variety of resources than a home care, in addition to having a social setting that might not be available at home.

"There is an understanding in halacha [Jewish law] that sometimes a parent needs to be put in an institution — for example, if the parent has dementia, and the children can’t handle the burden" said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City. "You need to weigh up the circumstances."

Still, others credit their long-term-care insurance and the home care it bought them with peace of mind. "When I took out the policy, my children kept telling me that I was throwing money out the window," Eva said. "But after I was mugged, they were relieved that I had this help, that I was OK and that I was not going to be dependent on them."

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.”


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