October 22, 1998
60th anniversary of Kristallnacht
By Arthur Stern and Michael Hirschfeld
November 1998 will mark the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Sixty years have passed since the beginning of one of human history's darkest moments and even now we find ourselves still pursuing justice for the victims of the Holocaust.
Last week Gov. Pete Wilson signed into law Senate Bill 1530 authored by Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica). The bill calls upon the California Department of Insurance to investigate and assist Holocaust survivors in obtaining unpaid insurance claims. Under this measure, insurers that refuse to pay valid claims would face the loss of their license to do business in California. We applaud Sen. Hayden for bringing this important issue before the people of California and the governor for seeing the importance of the issue.
SB 1530 is an important first step. Unfortunately, Gov. Wilson vetoed Assembly Bill 1715 (written by Wally Knox), legislation that would have required the establishment of an insurance policy registry by those insurance companies that handled the bulk of European insurance business between 1920 and 1945.
Additionally, AB 1715 would have revoked the license of any insurance company (or its subsidiary) operating in California if this essential information was not made publicly available. Because so many years have passed since the Holocaust and so many insurance policies were lost (or even discarded by heirs who believed them worthless), the creation of such a registry and its widespread availability is absolutely necessary for beneficiaries and their heirs to determine that their families indeed had obtained personal and/or business insurance policies that have remained unclaimed.
Here's what we ask of insurance companies: Show us your lists of names of insurance policy holders and beneficiaries! Make them available on the Internet, publish them in the newspapers and demonstrate that your corporations believe in justice!
There are some people who know their parents or grandparents had insurance policies. Some may even have documentation. Sen. Hayden's legislation will assist these people, but the vast majority of survivors and heirs, now 50 years after the war's end, do not know if such policies even existed and, if so, who the beneficiaries were. The European insurance companies, which wrote those policies in pre-war years, do have that documentation. Now they can right a wrong by publishing the names of policyholders and beneficiaries!
In California, the Italian Generali Insurance Co. and the Equitable Insurance Co. (a subsidiary of the French AXA Insurance Co.) have been involved in lobbying the state Legislature in connection with wartime insurance policies. It is time for them and for others, such as the German Allianz A.G. (who operates in California via its Fireman's Fund subsidiary), the Swiss Zurich, Baloise and Winterthur insurance companies to come clean and make public the names of those who had policies with them or their subsidiaries. Then justice will be served, the wrongs of the past made right. Insurance companies, show us your lists! Let justice prevail.
Arthur Stern is the chair of the Commission on World Jewry. Michael Hirschfeld is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee.