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Insurance holocaust claims
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in The Observer, 2002
A belated attempt, more than half a century late, to persuade insurance companies to pay out on life policies and savings plans held by victims of the Holocaust has become mired in delay and controversy. But whilst multinational insurers continue to sit on tens of thousands of unprocessed claims, families who lost relatives through Nazi persecution may have only a few more weeks left to put in a claim. The International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) has imposed a deadline of 31st January next year for new applications.
The ICHEIC was launched in February 2000, with former US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger at its head. At that time Eagleburger promised that his Commission would undertake what he called a "unprecedented process to swiftly investigate and pay legitimate claims". By the end of last month <Oct>, however, only 786 of the 80,000 claims received had been the subject of insurance companies offers and of these only 264 had actually been accepted. Whilst a small number of families have at last received the money that is rightfully theirs, for many more the long wait continues.
Michael Newman of the Central Office for Holocaust Claims, an London-based advisory service, says that his experience of the operation of the Commission has been intensely frustrating. "You have to wonder whether there is a willingness on behalf of the companies to actually facilitate payouts. Not enough is being done," he says.
The payments which are finally trickling out from the insurers relate to insurance policies taken out in mainland Europe in the years before the last war. These resembled todays endowment policies, in that they often included a savings element producing a payout at the end of the insurance term. Michael Newman says, for example, that many Jewish families with young children took out policies which were designed to pay for the childs later education or, for girls, to meet the costs of their wedding dowry. Ironically, the requirement imposed by the Nazis that Jews had to declare their assets means that records may still exist of these policies. About 45,000 policyholders names have been put on an internet site set up by ICHEIC.
In theory, it is conceivable that any family in Britain who had relatives who came here as refugees before or during the War could have a claim under the ICHEIC procedures. In practice, most approaches to the Commission to date have come from the US and Israel, and only about 1,150 have come from Britain. This may reflect the nature of the diaspora, but could also be because the task can be involve a lot of hard research work. It is not simply that insurance policies and other documentation are unlikely to have survived the war and the last sixty years. There can also be difficulties in proving family relationships, particularly if surnames have changed.
This is the problem currently facing Lee Comer, as she gets together the evidence for a ICHEIC claim in time for the January deadline. Cash reported in April this year how Lee Comer had found the names of members of her mothers family on lists of dormant Swiss bank accounts published on the internet. Since then she has now found the names of her fathers parents, Jacob and Fanny Schleifer from Vienna, on the internet, in the ICHEIC insurance policy lists. Her father, who escaped to Britain just before the war, was encouraged to change his name to Harry Sanders, and so to prove that that the Schleifers are indeed her grandparents has involved Lee in a paperchase at the Public Records Office and a lengthy series of phone calls. "I tried ringing the Immigration Office again and again for his naturalisation papers, but the phone there was never answered. In the end, I received information from the Army Records Office," she says.
Lee Comer believes she now has the details she needs to make a claim under the ICHEIC procedures. However, she has no idea how much her grandparents insurance policy may pay out, or if indeed she will ever have her claim recognised.
The ICHEIC was established as an alternative for insurers to the prospect of lengthy litigation cases in the US. Insurance companies signing up to the scheme undertook to adopt somewhat less rigorous standards of proof from claimants, and to use agreed formulae when valuing pre-war policies in todays currencies. Unfortunately, however, only five insurers eventually agreed to participate: Allianz, AXA, Generali, Winterthur Leben, and Zurich, together with their subsidiaries. According to Philip Francis, chief of staff of ICHEICs London office, these five firms between them represent only about a quarter to a third of the total relevant insurance market in pre-war continental Europe. The ICHEIC undertakes to pass on claims made against other firms, but it is believed that so far less than fifty such claims have successfully resulted in offers.
Philip Francis accepts that ICHEIC claims have progressed slowly. "Everyone involved including the Commission has found the process more complex than was initially expected. We have had many more claims than expected originally we were assuming we would receive 25,000 claims," he says. He says that it is necessary to check all claims carefully, and he points out that the policies may date back as much as eighty years.
But if the ICHEIC can take its time, why should potential claimants have to meet a tight timescale? "The first thing they could do is to extend the January deadline," says Michael Newman of the Central Office for Holocaust Claims. In fact, this now looks a strong possibility, not least because the ICHEIC is negotiating with German and Austrian insurers to extend the scope of its scheme and to publish more names. However, Philip Francis says that no decision is likely until the ICHEIC meets in January. In the meantime, therefore, the original deadline stands which means that anyone with even a remote chance of being eligible for a claim should take steps now to get in an application.
Central Office for Holocaust Claims, 020 7431 6161.