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.

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.”

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