Seek­ing Nazi-era in­surance claims

Holo­caust sur­vivors want to be able to file suit

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Curt An­der­son

AVENTURA – When David Schaecter was a child in Slo­vakia in the 1930s, he counted more than 100 peo­ple in his ex­tended fam­ily. By the end of World War II, he alone sur­vived. The rest had been killed in Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps or by rov­ing SS death squads.

Schaecter lost not only his fam­ily, but all they owned, in­clud­ing life in­surance cov­er­ing his mur­dered rel­a­tives. And as time runs out on ag­ing Holo­caust sur­vivors, some are try­ing to re­cover in­surance poli­cies that were not hon­ored by Nazi-era com­pa­nies, which could be worth at least $25 bil­lion al­to­gether in to­day’s dol­lars, ac­cord­ing to the Holo­caust Sur­vivors’ Foun­da­tion USA.

The sur­vivors want to take in­surance com­pa­nies to court in the U.S. to re

cover the money, but it would take an act of Congress to al­low it.

For nearly two decades, the foun­da­tion mem­bers have tried and failed to gain ac­cess to U.S. courts.

“This is an in­sult to hu­man­ity,” said Schaecter, 90, pres­i­dent of the or­ga­ni­za­tion and a sur­vivor of the Auschwitz and Buchen­wald con­cen­tra­tion camps. “I think they are try­ing to sweep it un­der the car­pet. The fact is, we are a dy­ing breed. There are so few of us left.”

As an­other season of high holy days con­cludes for Jews with Yom Kip­pur on Wed­nes­day, the Holo­caust sur­vivors group is op­ti­mistic that a re­cent hear­ing be­fore the U.S. Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee on the stolen in­surance is­sue may lead to change.

They gath­ered this week at Mo’s Bagels and Deli in the Mi­ami sub­urb of Aventura to talk it over.

“This is our last hope,” said David Mer­mel­stein, also 90, who leads a Mi­amiDade chap­ter of the group. “How can a Holo­caust sur­vivor be a sec­ond-class cit­i­zen un­der Amer­i­can law?”

The an­swer is com­pli­cated.

The Nazis un­der Adolf Hitler’s “fi­nal so­lu­tion” killed an es­ti­mated 6 mil­lion Jews and oth­ers deemed un­de­sir­able by the Ger­man govern­ment, in­clud­ing gyp­sies, ho­mo­sex­u­als and the dis­abled. It be­gan slowly once Hitler rose to power, with Jews pre­vented from cer­tain jobs and schools, and then the 1938 at­tack by Nazi gangs on Jewish homes, stores and syn­a­gogues known as Kristall­nacht, the “night of bro­ken glass.”

Since the war’s end, the Ger­man govern­ment has paid hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in repa­ra­tions to Holo­caust sur­vivors and other vic­tims of the Third Re­ich. The In­ter­na­tional Com­mis­sion on Holo­caust Era Claims, formed in the 1990s with U.S. back­ing, has paid out $305 mil­lion on these is­sues, plus $200 mil­lion in hu­man­i­tar­ian aid.

Ger­many, and in­surance com­pa­nies such as Mu­nich-based Al­lianz SE and Italy’s As­si­cu­razioni Gen­er­ali, say the com­mis­sion’s ac­tions should pro­vide fi­nal­ity — “le­gal peace,” in the ter­mi­nol­ogy of the deal — on the in­surance claims.

They also say they will re­pay ver­i­fi­able claims, but ver­i­fi­ca­tion is dif­fi­cult given the pas­sage of time and the wartime de­struc­tion of so many records. The com­pa­nies have de­manded orig­i­nal pa­per­work, such as death cer­tifi­cates, that were sim­ply not avail­able af­ter the war.

The in­sur­ers had close Nazi ties. A for­mer Al­lianz chair­man in 1933 be­came Hitler’s eco­nom­ics min­is­ter. The com­pany to­day is one of the world’s largest in­sur­ers, and in­sists it will not shy away from the past.

“While we can­not undo any as­pect of our com­pany’s his­tory, we can learn from it and work to make sure the hor­rors of the Holo­caust are never again re­peated,” Anja Rechen­berg, Al­lianz’s cor­po­rate re­spon­si­bil­ity spokesper­son, said in an email. “To this day, Al­lianz con­tin­ues to pay any ver­i­fi­ably un­set­tled claims.”

Mer­mel­stein re­calls as a child his par­ents hav­ing a plaque in their house la­beled “Gen­er­ali”, the name of the Ital­ian in­surer with which they had a pol­icy. He also re­calls an in­surance agent com­ing around to col­lect the pre­mi­ums.

“Of course we have no doc­u­ments for ob­vi­ous rea­sons,” he said.

Tri­este-based Gen­er­ali said it’s com­mit­ted to pay­ing claims when­ever pos­si­ble.

“Gen­er­ali’s long-stand­ing com­mit­ment to re­solv­ing claims of vic­tims of the Holo­caust and their heirs is well es­tab­lished and un­equiv­o­cally re­mains in place to­day,” the com­pany said in an email.

In Congress, bills have been filed over the years to al­low Amer­i­can Holo­caust sur­vivors ac­cess to the U.S. courts. None have passed, and other Jewish groups have op­posed them. These groups, in­clud­ing the An­tiDefama­tion League and Amer­i­can Jewish Com­mit­tee, have de­cided in­stead to sup­port the claims ar­range­ment cre­ated in the 1990s.

In ad­di­tion to per­mit­ting law­suits against in­surance com­pa­nies, many of the bills would have re­quired the com­pa­nies to dis­close lists of poli­cies held by Jews be­fore World War II.

The sur­vivors say given the ef­fi­ciency and metic­u­lous record-keep­ing of the Third Re­ich, it’s hard to be­lieve such lists don’t ex­ist.

“If you know Ger­man bu­reau­cracy, there isn’t a ‘T’ that hasn’t been crossed. They kept a real strict record,’ said Vera Kar­liner, whose hus­band Herb was on the ship named the St. Louis that was full of Jewish refugees but was turned away from the U.S. in 1939. Herb Kar­liner, now 93, sur­vived the Holo­caust.

As the ag­ing Holo­caust sur­vivors await con­gres­sional ac­tion on their lon­gago stolen in­surance poli­cies, many are in frail health, in need of as­sis­tance for things like pre­scrip­tion drugs and med­i­cal needs. All of them say they sim­ply want jus­tice.

Their lawyer, Sam Dub­bin, says it’s time for law­mak­ers to do some­thing.

“Be­cause the cur­rent law is a re­sult of court de­ci­sions based on mis­lead­ing and un­prece­dented ex­ec­u­tive branch po­si­tions, only Congress can pro­vide the nec­es­sary rem­edy — leg­is­la­tion to re­quire the com­pa­nies to pub­lish pol­icy in­for­ma­tion and to pro­vide a clear right of ac­tion for claimants in U.S. courts,” Dub­bin said.

WIL­FREDO LEE/AP

David Schaecter, pres­i­dent of the Holo­caust Sur­vivors Foun­da­tion USA, speaks dur­ing an interview with the AP.

WIL­FREDO LEE/AP

Vera Kar­liner, right, speaks dur­ing an interview, along with her hus­band Herb, left, who was on a ship that was full of Jewish refugees but was turned away from the U.S. in 1939.

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