Survivors of Holocaust Seeking Financial Closure
US is urging foreign insurers and banks to settle old claims and accounts not paid.
NEW YORK — In 1948, Margret Zentner and her husband returned to Schlchtern, a small town near Frankfurt, Germany, from the horror of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
They were wearing rags on their backs and eating meals at soup kitchens. But Margret remembered that in 1928 her father had taken out "dowry" insurance to be paid out when she reached 21 or got married.
So she wrote the company, Munich-based Allianz Lebensversicherungs, asking them to pay out the 5,000 mark policy. Instead, the company replied that it had already paid a German company, probably associated with the troops that herded them into transports to the death camps.
"I wrote a very outraged letter back and said this cannot be," says Ms. Zentner, now living in Little Neck, N.Y., "and never heard from them again."
Now some of these emotional stories may be heading for a denouement. Pressure is growing on several fronts to resolve the financial issues surrounding one of the darkest moments in the 20th century. For example:
Three giant Swiss banks recently said they were willing to negotiate with Holocaust victims over Nazi gold deposited in their banks. A compensation fund with billions of dollars would be set up in the US.
On Wednesday, the State Department said it would host a conference in November about assets looted from Jewish victims. It hopes the conference will act as a catalyst to resolve the Holocaust financial issues before the end of the century.
Insurance commissioners in several large states - including Florida, California, Washington, and New York - are pressuring foreign insurance companies to settle claims such as Zentner's.
"Progress is being made," says Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, which is involved in the negotiations. He anticipates future actions will include stolen art work and intellectual property such as trademarks royalties.
THERE is some discussion, too, about setting up a commission for insurance similar to one headed by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, who is probing unclaimed Holocaust-era assets in Swiss banks. The Volcker commission has received over 7,000 claims and 1,400 are in the final processing stage.
The main reason for the progress is pressure. When two giant Swiss banks, Swiss Bank Corp. and Union Bank of Switzerland, announced a merger, the New York state Banking Superintendent opposed the merger, and New York's Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) asked the Federal Reserve to reject any application resulting from the proposed merger.
Last week, five US public finance officials met in New York to decide whether to institute a boycott or take other actions. At the last moment, the Swiss banks relented, agreeing to work toward a settlement.
"I don't believe that this happens if we financial officers and local government officials did not get into the process," says Alan Hevesi, comptroller of New York. "I think the Swiss came to understand that not only were we asking for something that was morally correct but there were also potential pragmatic consequences they wanted to avoid."
THE same thing is happening with the insurance claims. Last month the National Association of Insurance Commissioners held hearings around the country on the unpaid claims. State insurance officials are pressuring Italy's largest insurer, Trieste-based Assicurazioni Generali, to answer questions regarding the unpaid claims. Last month, after a court fight, the company agreed to let the State of California search its records.
Scott Vayer, a lawyer representing Generali, says the company believes it paid all legitimate claims where the insurance company was not nationalized and its business was able to proceed. In countries that nationalized the insurance companies, he says, policy holders were directed to the national authorities who took over the asset reserves that backed up the policies.
Nevertheless, he says, "we are sensitive to the suffering the victims have undergone and we are working to supply information to people with respect to those with policies in Eastern Europe so they can pursue claims."
The foreign companies have come under further pressure as a result of a class-action suit filed in New York on behalf of 1,500 claimants. "We think we are dealing with a tremendous amount of money," says Lawrence Kill, a partner at Anderson Kill & Olick, which is representing the plaintiffs. "We're not sure of the amount of money until the defendants grant us access, but we think there were tens of thousands of people not paid."
One of his clients who was never paid is Marta Cornell, a Flushing, Queens resident, whose father had taken out about 10 policies, including some from Generali. In 1942, her entire family was taken to the concentration camps. All perished except for Marta and her grandmother.
After the war, she went back to her home town outside of Prague in the hope her relatives would return. "No one came and I had absolutely nothing," she recalls. Then, one day her father's insurance agent arrived and tried to help her collect on the policies. "He was told that I was not entitled to anything," she says.
In 1964, she came to the US and wrote the company which replied that her father had stopped paying the premiums in 1942 so they were no longer in force. When she heard about the Swiss gold hoard, she remembered the insurance policies and sent their numbers to the lawyers.
"I want what belongs to me - my father worked very hard for the money to pay for those policies," she says. "He bought these policies in good faith."