November 6, 2003
L.A. Survivors Sue Claims Commission
Three Holocaust survivors in their 70s lead comfortable lives in Los Angeles suburbia, but their anger burns as fiercely as when they were teenagers deported to Nazi forced labor and concentration camps.
Their indignation and frustration are now directed mainly at an international commission, which they believe is fronting for an insurance company that has given them the runaround for nearly 60 years.
During a recent news conference, the three survivors denounced the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) and its chairman, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.
Two of the men, Manny Steinberg of West Hills, and Dr. Jack Brauns of Covina, have filed suit against the commission, charging that it is in league with Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, one of Europe's largest insurance companies, to lower or deny claims by survivors or their heirs.
"I was in Auschwitz and ICHEIC has the same kind of selection process, deciding who will get paid and who won't," Steinberg, 78, charged. "Eagleburger and Generali act like little gods."
Brauns, 79, complained that "Eagleburger portrayed himself as a man on a white horse, who would help the survivors, but he doesn't respond to calls and his commission meetings are open to Generali but closed to survivors and the public."
Si Frumkin, 72, is not part of the lawsuit, but has had his own unhappy experiences with ICHEIC.
"This is a totally inefficient operation, in which the insurance company calls the tune," he said.
The demand for Eagleburger's ouster was joined by California insurance commissioner John Garamendi, a member of the ICHEIC board, who in a separate statement said, "It's time for him to go.... It seems ICHEIC is more often interested in protecting [insurance] companies than in providing quick and appropriate payment for the survivors."
ICHEIC was formed in 1998 as a private body, incorporated in Switzerland, by representatives of European insurance companies, major American Jewish organizations and the State of Israel, as well as insurance commissioners from California and several other states. Its declared purpose was to speed up the process of insurance claim payments and save survivors the time and expense of lengthy private legal proceedings.
But in congressional testimony in September, Eagleburger acknowledged that in five years ICHEIC had settled only 5 percent of the 54,000 claims submitted. He also conceded that his commission has spent more on its own operations and salaries than in payments to survivors.
However, several Jewish leaders have defended ICHEIC and its chairman, saying that the job was much more complicated than anticipated and that Eagleburger was doing his best under difficult circumstances.
The frustration expressed by Steinberg and Brauns was fueled by decades of fruitless dealings with Generali, and transferred to ICHEIC, which they believe is manipulated by the Italian insurance company.
According to attorney William Shernoff, who filed the suit in Los Angeles Superior Court under California's Unfair Business Practices statute, ICHEIC's operations are underwritten through a $100 million grant from Generali, which apparently includes Eagleburger's annual salary of $360,000.
"It's as if I appeared before a judge, knowing that he is paid by the company I'm suing," Frumkin said.
Steinberg, born Hirsch Mendel Sztajnberg in Radom, Poland, was 14 when he was assigned to a munitions factory for forced labor, and later survived a death march, Auschwitz and a Dachau satellite camp. His mother and a brother perished in the Holocaust, while his father and another brother survived.
"I still remember, when I was a young child, the Generali agent coming to my father's ladies custom tailoring store every two weeks to collect $2 to $3 in insurance premiums," Steinberg said. "And while we were in camp, my father kept reminding me, 'If we get out, there is a small insurance policy waiting."
Somewhat ironically, Generali was founded by Jewish merchants in Trieste, Poland, in 1831, had thousands of Jewish agents and, according to the lawsuit, wrote some 80 percent of policies held by Jews in prewar Europe.
After decades of stonewalling by Generali, Steinberg said, the insurance company began to refer all claims to ICHEIC. But after five years of correspondence with the commission, Steinberg's claim is no closer to resolution, said the retired importer and Korean War veteran.
Brauns, a retired surgeon, was born in Lithuania and spent four years in concentration camps, starting at age 16. He was liberated in Dachau in the spring of 1945.
In 1930, his father had taken out a $2,000 policy with Generali for his son's future education, to be paid out in dollars at the September 1945 maturity date.
Although the Brauns family was one of the very few who had hidden and then recovered their original policy, repeated visits to Generali headquarters in Rome over a 55-year period bore no results.
Finally, three years ago, Brauns received a letter from ICHEIC, to whom Generali had referred all claims, offering to pay $5,000 for the 1930 policy. Counting accrued interest and inflation rates in the intervening years, Shernoff believes that actual worth of the policy is now $100,000.
Frumkin was 10 years old when he and his family were herded into the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania, and 13 when he was transferred to a forced labor construction project.
"I am one of a hundreds of thousands of cases whose claims have been stonewalled," he said.
He is currently sitting on a committee to distribute $4.2 million paid by Dutch insurance companies among some 3,000 California claimants.
"We are working very hard and making good progress, without asking for a penny in pay," Frumkin said. "I wonder why Eagleburger cannot do the same."
He added that whatever insurance money he may get will go to charity.
Despite the accumulating pressure, Eagleburger has no intention of resigning, his executive assistant, Anais Haase, told The Journal.
Haase defended ICHEIC as the only venue giving survivors the opportunity of pursuing their claims without cost. She warned that if Eagleburger and the commission had to defend themselves against lawsuits, it would divert time and money from processing claims.
Kenneth Bialkin, the New York-based lead attorney for Generali, said recently that the insurance company "couldn't be more forthcoming" in trying to settle 60-year-old claims and pointed to its $100 million contribution to ICHEIC as proof of Generali's fairness and good faith.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), a veteran congressional champion of survivor claims, said that, "I'm not sure that getting rid of Eagleburger would be a magic bullet. He could have been doing a better job, but the problems of ICHEIC are not his fault alone. It is the insurance companies that should be facing consequences for their unfair treatment of claimants."
Other prominent Jewish spokesmen also defended Eagleburger, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Los Angeles Times reported.
Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, said that ICHEIC's problems were not due to bad faith but to facing "a mammoth task, which is bigger than we ever thought it was going to be."
Stuart Eizenstat, the Clinton administration's pointman in Holocaust restitution negotiations, said that "Larry [Eagleburger] has earned every nickel and then some.
He's had to undergo hell to bring the parties together."
Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and a member of ICHEIC, said that Eagleburger had done his best under difficult circumstances.
Frumkin expressed his "total puzzlement" and Brauns his skepticism regarding the supportive statements by the Jewish spokesmen.