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Holocaust Claims Still Going Unpaid

THE NATION

Reparations: Panel formed to settle disputes over prewar insurance policies makes little headway, documents show. German firms say few valid requests exist.

July 09, 2001|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

Nearly three years after an international commission was created to resolve Holocaust-era insurance disputes, the leading German insurance company has not paid a single claim, according to internal commission documents.

Instead, a consortium of German insurance companies has taken steps to make collection more difficult, including filing lawsuits in California and Florida to try to contest statutes designed to make collection easier. The companies also have not honored a commitment to provide a complete listing of potential unpaid policyholders, according to insurance regulators and Jewish advocates.

Allianz, the largest German insurance company, for example, has provided only 380 names so far out of a list of 1.5 million policies, according to commission records.

The companies say that producing the lists would be overly burdensome and in some instances would violate European privacy laws. But U.S. officials say the lists are vital to the process of settling the insurance claims.

"Production of lists and giving claimants an opportunity to know if they are on the lists or their relatives were on the list is essential for people to have confidence that all reasonable efforts have been taken to try to resolve the situation," said Nathaniel S. Shapo, director of the Illinois Department of Insurance and chairman of the Holocaust task force of the National Assn. of Insurance Commissioners.

The firms also are seeking to get a credit for at least $25 million they gave to the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims for operating expenses. The reimbursement would come from funds that are supposed to go toward paying policyholders, according to commission documents.

The broad issue involves claims by heirs of people murdered by the Nazis who allege that the insurance companies have refused to pay off life insurance policies written in prewar Europe.

The claimants and their advocates argue that tens of thousands of such unpaid policies exist, but the insurance companies insist that unpaid claims are rare.

In 1998, about a year after the in surance controversy erupted, several of the companies, including Allianz, said that a number of policyholders had been compensated under Holocaust reparations programs set up by the German government in the 1950s.

Joerg Allgaeuer, an Allianz spokesman in Munich, reiterated that position on Friday. He acknowledged that "it does look weird to have that zero" in the international commission's list of claims paid. However, he said that a number of Allianz policyholders had been compensated under German government reparations programs in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. He offered no specific dollar figures.

U.S. officials dispute that assertion.

"If there were no valid claims, Allianz would not have agreed to participate" in a proposed multimillion-dollar settlement fund for claims, said Stuart E. Eizenstat, the former deputy secretary of the Treasury Department who was the special U.S. envoy on Holocaust issues in the Clinton administration.

Eizenstat said Friday that he is "very concerned about the impasse that may be developing" over the claims process and the publication of policyholder lists.

The moves by the insurance companies have angered Jewish leaders as well as insurance regulators in California and elsewhere in the United States.

The international commission has scheduled a special meeting for Tuesday in Washington aimed at resolving some of these issues, but a resolution seems unlikely, according to several sources, including Reuven "Bobby" Brown, one of the Israeli government representatives on the commission.

"That meeting will be high noon at the OK Corral," Brown said. "I know I speak for the Jewish side. . . . We are not going to agree to anything that is not a fair shake."

In addition to the impact on the insurance claims themselves, the continuing dispute could delay completion of a related settlement reached earlier this year to resolve World War II slave labor claims.

The two issues were linked in a $4.6-billion deal funded by German industry and the German government. Payments already have started flowing to some of the thousands of former slave laborers covered by the agreement.

Of the money in that settlement, $220 million was allocated to cover insurance claims. But no accord has been reached on several key issues that would allow that money to be distributed.

"It is critical that there be an agreement . . . relating to the unpaid policies of German insurers," Lawrence S. Eagleburger, the former U.S. Secretary of State who heads the international commission on insurance claims, said in a declaration filed recently in a related court case.

"At present, no such final agreement has been reached," he said. "And it is uncertain that any such agreement will be reached," Eagleburger added in an uncharacteristically pessimistic tone.

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