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October 7, 1999

Waiting for the X

Insurance bill waiting on Davis' signature could provide chance for survivors to collect on Holocaust-era policies

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/waiting_for_the_x_19991008

To please Holocaust survivors and Jewish advocacy groups or to please the insurance companies. That's the question Gov. Gray Davis faces this week as Assembly Bill 600 sits on his desk, awaiting his approval.

Advocates for the measure -- which includes the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles -- say if it becomes law, it would resolve outstanding Holocaust-era insurance claims.

Opponents of the bill -- the Alliance of American Insurers -- disagree. They maintain that the existing law already takes care of the policyholders -- Holocaust survivors or their descendants. If Davis signs AB 600 into law, they claim, it will place an undue burden on insurance companies doing business in California.

Last year, then-Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a similar measure, but, using similar arguments, instead signed into law a bill that authorized the California Department of Insurance to investigate and recover unpaid Holocaust claims. Insurance companies are a flush source of campaign contributions in the state, contributing to both parties.

According to bill author Assemblyman Wally Knox, D-Los Angeles, AB 600 would "force insurance companies to disclose policyholders from the Holocaust era," enabling those survivors who have a claim but no paperwork to start collecting against the old policy.

Once signed into law, insurance companies would be required within six months to disclose information to the California Department of Insurance. If they fail to do so, "then the state Department of Insurance would take away their authority to operate in the state," says Knox.

As of Tuesday, Terri Smooke, Davis' representative to the Jewish community, says she has received no word on whether Davis will sign the bill.

"I have absolutely no knowledge at this time, and as you, I'm very hopeful," she said.

Davis has until midnight, Oct. 10, to sign the bill or veto it.

Arthur Stern, a Holocaust survivor, says the new bill provides a chance for Davis to show his "true colors." Stern, who also heads up the Federation committee that oversees Holocaust-era insurance policies, says current law allows people to make claims against insurance companies such as Italy's Assicurazioni Generali, but it still requires them to prove their claims or submit death certificates.

The problem is that only 3 percent to 5 percent of those entitled to money have the appropriate documents, says Stern. Most of the policyholders lost their papers or, in some cases, had them destroyed when they were rounded up by the Nazis. Nor do many of the descendants of those killed have death certificates; they were not issued in many death camps.

"The interests of the vast majority of the survivors and heirs are to have the names and addresses of the bearers published," says Stern. "You can see from the insurance companies that this is the last thing they want to do. Why? Because it would reveal their fundamental dishonesty that they've sustained for 50 years."

Stern himself has a case pending against insurance companies for a Holocaust-era policy, but he says if he recovers money, he will donate it to charity. For him, the issue is not money; it's justice.

"I feel that the behavior of the insurance companies within the norms of our civilization is simply incredible," he says. "Most of us abide by the rule that you don't steal, at least not publicly, but the insurance companies have stolen publicly."

Generali had brokered a deal in September 1998, whereby it would settle the claims of policyholders now covered under existing law, but it backed out when negotiators refused to have policyholders relinquish any future claims.

To Stern, that's a deal that won't help the majority of the survivors or their descendants.

"The insurance companies would like to make a global settlement," he says. "The settlement would be several million dollars, but who would get the money? Those people who have the policies and sponsoring organizations."


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