November 27, 1997
Supporting Their Claims
California's insurance commissioner has promised to use the power of his office to help thousands of the state's residents collect on unpaid insurance policies stemming from the Holocaust era.
Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush gave the pledge during an often dramatic hearing on Monday at the Ronald Reagan State Building in downtown Los Angeles.
Six Holocaust survivors or descendants of Nazi victims testified at the hearing, relating how leading European insurance companies had stonewalled their efforts to collect on life and property insurance policies taken out before World War II.
One witness, Freddy Jackson (whose story The Jewish Journal reported in its May 2 issue), told of an elaborate runaround by the Italian insurance giant Assicurazioni Generali in which his claim on the policy taken out by his father, killed in Auschwitz, was bucked from one European country to another for decades.
The experiences of many of the insurance claimants parallel those of depositors trying to collect on dormant Swiss bank accounts, but the sums at stake may be much larger.
Attorney Rene Siemens, representing the petitioners at the hearing, said in a telephone interview that insurance claims across the United States and the world could run into billions of dollars.
The Los Angeles hearing was part of a nationwide effort by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners to aid claimants by exerting their regulatory powers over the American affiliates and subsidiaries of the targeted European insurance companies. A task force of the association has held hearings in Skokie, Ill., and Miami, and plans further hearings in Los Angeles, Seattle and New York.
At the same time, a national class-action suit on similar claims against the European insurance companies is being heard in New York federal court. In this lawsuit, plaintiffs charge that "in many instances, proceeds from the insurance policies of the victims of Nazi persecution were used to finance and extend the war or otherwise enrich Nazi war criminals."
After the witnesses' testimony in Los Angeles, Quackenbush said that he recognized representatives of the insurance companies in the hearing room and asked them to step forward. None took up the invitation.
However, a public relations representative for Italy's Generali distributed a statement. It noted that the firm had been founded in 1831 by a group of Jewish merchants and that an affiliate, Migdal, is Israel's largest insurance company.
The statement added that Generali is in the process of establishing a $12 million philanthropic fund in Israel in memory of the company's policyholders who perished in the Holocaust.
An attorney for Germany's Allianz AG, also named as a defendant in the New York lawsuit, told the Los Angeles Times that his client had done nothing wrong, but had set up a help line and was retaining an American accounting firm to review its files.
A second Los Angeles hearing will be held on Jan. 13 at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where more witnesses will be heard. Quackenbush said that he will ask representatives of the insurance companies to testify, and if they decline, he will issue subpoenas for their appearance.
Siemens' law firm, Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, working with Bet Tzedek Legal Services of Los Angeles, has set up a nationwide help line for potential claimants at (800) 899-4341.
In addition, staff counsel Leslie Tick of the state Insurance Department can be contacted for information or by persons wishing to be heard at the Jan. 13 hearing. She can be reached at (415) 538-4190, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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