When Suzanne Weiner-Zada was growing up in Hungary, her father, a wealthy lumber merchant, took out eight insurance policies with Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, one of the world's largest insurance companies, which operated extensively in the pre-World War II Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe.
One policy was on the life of her 10-year-old brother, Laszlo, who was killed in Auschwitz, as were their grandparents.
Weiner-Zada survived Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz and eventually settled in Los Angeles, working as an artists' representative. Until two years ago, she didn't try to redeem the policies, because "I didn't want blood money," she said.
When she finally did apply, she received a settlement offer of $10,533, later raised to $16,012. The figures were ridiculously low, she said, but what really set off the feisty 73-year-old was Generali's demand that she sign a statement to the effect that the money was being paid out as an act of charity and not as a legal obligation.
"They want to make us look like beggars," Weiner-Zada exploded. "I said to hell with it. Even if the sums were much larger, I would never sign such a thing. There's still a lot of spunk in me."
Weiner-Zada is among eight parties of Holocaust survivors and their descendants from the Los Angeles area, who in early April filed a suit against Generali in Los Angeles Superior Court. They claim that for more than 50 years the company had stonewalled their requests for payment on policies or fobbed them off with meager settlement offers.
The actual and potential stakes in this and a half-dozen other lawsuits filed against Generali are huge. Attorney William M. Shernoff, who represents the "California Eight" and has been confronting Generali for five years, estimates that the policies in the current suit might now be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and might reach millions if a jury ultimately adds bad faith and punitive damages to its verdict.
But that may be only the tip of the iceberg. If the eight win their case, they might be followed by tens of thousands of other plaintiffs seeking billions of dollars from Generali and other European insurance companies.
Generali has used various lines of defense, according to Shernoff and his co-counsel, Lisa Stern. First, the company said it could not find records of the disputed policies, or demanded, according to numerous survivors, death certificates for Jews killed in Auschwitz or other extermination camps, a charge denied by Generali.
When these arguments failed, Generali said that the insurance payments had been paid to Hitler's regime after it confiscated the policies held by Jews.
Generali also argued that its branch offices in Eastern Europe had been expropriated and nationalized by communist governments after World War II. But the latest and strongest barrier was Generali's position that all claims be routed through a body known as The International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.
The commission was established in 1998 by major European insurance companies, insurance commissioners from various U.S. states, with the participation of major Jewish organizations, including the World Jewish Congress, and the State of Israel. It was hoped that through the commission setup, claimants would get their money faster and easier than going through lengthy court proceedings.
In practice, critics say, only a trickle of claims has been approved by the commission, which is funded entirely by the insurance companies, with Generali contributing the biggest stake, $100 million.
In a landmark decision, Manhattan Federal District Judge Michael B. Mukasey ruled in early April that the commission could not dispense fair treatment and functioned, in his words, as a "company store."
The decision unblocked the path for the filing of the "California Eight" suit, and other suits which had been backing up.
The other Los Angeles plaintiffs in the case are Stephen Lantos, Edith More, Iga Pioro, George Kunstadt, Helga and Tom Sorter, Susan Ungar, and Jack Weiss and his daughter, Judy Friedman.
The allegations against Generali were vigorously contested by Kenneth Bialkin, the company's lead attorney, who said that Generali "couldn't be more forthcoming" in trying to settle 60-year-old policy claims.
There is a certain irony in Generali being cast as the heavy in the ongoing legal battles with Holocaust survivors. The company was founded in 1831 by Jewish merchants in Trieste, had thousands of Jewish agents throughout Europe and, even now, its current chairman of the board is Jewish.
Bialkin said he was particularly disturbed by the claim that Generali had demanded official death certificates from Jews killed in extermination camps, a charge that "immediately raises a horrid image."
Despite testimonies from survivors, Bialkin insisted that the death certificate demands were false and had been officially denied by Generali.
He pointed to a voluntary trust fund established by Generali in 1998 and its $100 million contribution to the international commission as proof of the Italian company's fairness and good faith.
A former national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, Bialkin charged that "the plaintiffs want to give Generali a bad name, and that bothers me as a Jew and a lawyer."