The charge is being led by Gov. Gray Davis and state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush. Speaking at a news conference last Friday, they pledged, in Davis' words, to "begin a sacred pilgrimage to bring healing and hope to those victimized not once, but twice. We will do everything possible to seek justice for Holocaust victims, survivors and their families."
At the conference, held in the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Davis also warned insurance companies "to pay now, or we guarantee you will pay more later."
State Sen. Tom Hayden handed Quackenbush a petition that called for the suspension of 64 insurance companies practicing in California which have failed to honor Holocaust-era claims.
To enlist public support, Davis announced the formation of the California Holocaust Insurance Settlement Alliance, which consists of 25 organizations and individuals.
Quackenbush announced the creation of a Web site -- www.insurance.ca.gov -- and a toll-free phone line -- (888) 234-4636 -- to help potential claimants. His office is placing ads in some 30 general and Jewish newspapers in California, each ending with the line, "It's about restitution, it's about justice and it's about time."
The California Insurance Department will mail restitution application forms to Holocaust survivors and their families throughout the state.
The effort is intended primarily for the estimated 20,000 Holocaust survivors in California, but information is also available to the other 120,000 to 140,000 survivors throughout the United States. It is believed that there are up to 860,000 survivors worldwide.
In a series of hearings hosted by U.S. insurance commissioners last year, numerous witnesses charged that the European insurers have been stalling for 50 years to avoid payment on policies taken out by Jews in prewar years.
Based on its research into the unpaid policies, the World Jewish Congress has put their value at between $2 billion and $2.5 billion in today's currency -- 10 times their value in postwar dollars.
Recently enacted state laws have empowered California courts to deal with claims against European insurance companies doing business in the state and for officials to withdraw the licenses of uncooperative companies.
Currently, subsidiaries of six major insurance companies are collecting billions of dollars in premiums in California, Hayden said. They are: Assicurazioni Generali of Italy; Germany's leading insurer, Allianz Holding; France's AXA Group; and the Winterthur, Zurich and Basel insurance firms in Switzerland.
Quackenbush said he is hopeful that the California actions will encourage the six companies, plus 13 others operating in California, to reach a fair and speedy settlement.
"When they feel the heat, they'll see the light," he said.
Implicitly, Hayden said in an interview, some of the pressure is also directed at the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, which was to meet this week in London under former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.
Hayden said both Eagleburger and Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, the Clinton administration's point man on Holocaust reparation issues, have opposed action by individual states against European insurance companies.
But Hayden maintains that only the threat of losing lucrative business in California and other states will persuade the firms to settle the claims.