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California and the West

Holocaust Victims' Kin Urged to Pursue Assets

Insurance: Jewish relatives are encouraged to create database and search their roots because they may be entitled to payouts from Nazi-era policies.

July 14, 1998|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Though entire families were wiped out in the Holocaust, all manner of distant relatives alive may now--to their considerable surprise--be entitled to claim Holocaust-era insurance proceeds, authorities said Monday at a Jewish genealogical convention in Los Angeles.

Cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles would do well to investigate their family histories because many Nazi-era insurance policies are now believed to be "heirless," meaning without an apparent beneficiary, Washington state Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn said.

To facilitate the search for heirs, Senn called for European insurance companies to provide a "full accounting and publication" of all those who bought policies in the years before and during World War II. And she urged those attending the Assn. of Jewish Genealogical Societies convention to create a massive computer database linking records in the United States, Europe and Israel.

Time is of the essence because many survivors are aging, Senn said. "Everyone knows the Holocaust was the greatest murder in history. . . . We're learning it also was the greatest theft in history."

Her comments Monday marked the latest turn in an escalating international campaign, played out in the political and public relations arenas as well as in the courts, aimed both at European insurance companies and at Swiss-based banks.

U.S. authorities, including Senn and California Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, want the insurers to open records and confront the claims of concentration camp survivors and the relatives of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis.

In the American courts, survivors and victims' relatives have filed numerous lawsuits against the insurers and the banks.

The money at issue in the Swiss banks stems from deposits made by thousands of Jews as the Nazis gained power in Europe.

Similarly, as World War II loomed, Jewish families tried to protect their assets by buying insurance--health insurance, property and casualty insurance for their homes and business, and even life insurance.

For more than 50 years, victims' relatives and Holocaust survivors say, bank and insurance officials have stonewalled them, contending that bank accounts or insurance policies could not be found or refusing to turn over funds unless heirs produced nonexistent death certificates from camps such as Auschwitz.

The amount of insurance money at stake, Senn said Monday, is estimated in the billions of dollars.

She called Monday on the genealogists to help match "lost heirs" to policies.

Sallyann Sack, the Bethesa, Md.-based president of the Jewish genealogical societies, a collection of 10,000 members in 70 groups worldwide, responded that such a plan is underway.

Under construction, she said, is a massive computer database designed to combine individual family trees generated by researchers in the United States--each painstakingly produced, then copied onto computer disks--with institutional data from sources such as Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, as well as archives from the former Soviet Union.

"To say that somebody who was murdered in the Holocaust was totally unrelated to anybody else on earth today, not only is that somewhat monstrous, it's just not true," Sack said.

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