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.