If true, if the half-century of futility and injustice Alan and Lisa Stern describe is accurate, the gall of the Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali SpA boggles the mind.
For 54 years the descendants of Mor and Regina Stern have been trying to collect on insurance policies purchased from the international insurance giant in the years before Mor, Regina and other relatives, including an 11-month-old grandson, perished in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. One of the couple's sons made the first attempt. A destitute survivor of the concentration camps, he walked into a Generali office in Prague in 1945 and tried to collect. He says a Generali agent told him to produce a death certificate. He couldn't, of course, and was unceremoniously ushered out into the street. The surviving sons tried several other times at various Generali offices in Europe. The company would not pay a cent. Instead, the Sterns say, Generali consistently balked or stalled, refusing for decades to acknowledge that the policies ever existed.
On Dec. 9, 1996, in response to renewed efforts mounted by a new generation of Sterns, the company wrote a letter saying it had no legal or moral obligation to the family. The next day, long before the letter was delivered, the fax machine whirred at Alan's mother's house in London. Out came a photocopy of a policy dated April 23, 1929, and issued to Mor Stern in Prague. It had been found by a clerk at a Generali warehouse in Trieste, Italy.
'Ironic," says Lisa, a Los Angeles lawyer.
Gov. Gray Davis has called the quest by Holocaust survivors to recoup insurance benefits a "sacred pilgrimage." An estimated 20,000 survivors live in California, the second-largest group in the nation. Alan and Lisa Stern have filed a $135-million lawsuit against Generali, becoming the first family to ever file a Holocaust-related lawsuit in an American court against an insurance company. If they succeed, their case is likely to help shape the course of two class-action Holocaust-era insurance cases filed in federal courts on the East Coast; it's also likely to influence an international commission created last year to try to establish a nonjudicial way to resolve unpaid claims.
Generali maintains it is no longer responsible for such policies. It says its liability ceased when its East European branch offices were nationalized by Communist governments shortly after World War II ended. And it estimates the value of the Sterns' policies, accounting for currency devaluation over the decades, at $300.
As hard as it may be to believe, Alan, 44, and Lisa, 40, aren't fighting Generali for money or fame. He's a commodities trader; her solo law practice has been successful. They're quite well-off already. They allowed me to feature them in this story only after I urged them repeatedly to do so. Even so, they have concerns. Lisa's father was shot and severely wounded in a botched hold-up several years ago, and the assailant has never been caught. They worry that publicity might bring them unwanted attention. They eventually agreed to talk because they believe a story might embolden the families of other Holocaust survivors to seek a final accounting before it's too late.
Because what is at stake is memory--how we define what really happened in the Holocaust and how we tell it to our children.
And something more.
Alan and Lisa are observant Jews and live their lives according to the framework of the 613 commandments spelled out in the Torah, the Jewish bible. And on this issue, the Torah could not be more clear. For emphasis, it repeats the moral imperative: "Justice, justice you shall pursue . . . ."
The mind reels at the scope of the Shoah, as Jews call the Holocaust. Six million people, dead. Why?
More than 50 years later, public discourse about the crime tends to focus on the 6 million, on the big picture. With the exception of Anne Frank, can you name even one other person who was shot dead and then dumped in a mass grave or gassed in the camps? Unless you are a survivor or know one, odds are you can't. This remains one of the lingering injustices of the crime. In a way, it gives Hitler the kind of victory he sought when his troopers robbed Jews of their possessions, when Nazi guards shaved their victims' hair and tattooed numbers on Jewish forearms. Hitler was intent on dehumanizing his victims before killing them. This was no accident. One of the central tenets of Judaism is that each individual has infinite value, infinite worth. What better way to strike at a core Jewish belief? And what better way, now, to reclaim the memory of the dead than by remembering their individuality?