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New York Times

Wednesday, September 17, 2003


Holocaust Insurance Effort Is Costing More Than It Wins

by Joseph B Treaster

EagleburgerWASHINGTON, Sept. 16 - Lawrence S. Eagleburger, left, the chairman of a widely criticized commission to help Holocaust survivors collect claims from European insurance companies, said today that his organization had spent 60 percent more for operations than it had persuaded insurers to pay in claims.

In testimony to the House Committee on Government Reform, Mr. Eagleburger said that since its founding five years ago, his organization, the International Commission on Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims, had spent $56 million and obtained offers of claims payments of $35 million.

He also said that while the commission had received 54,000 claims that it regarded as valid - a tiny fraction in relation to the millions of policies that experts say were sold in Europe at the time of the Holocaust - only 2,600, or less than 5 percent, have received offers of payment.

Mr. Eagleburger said he did not know how many people had accepted the offers. He said the insurance companies had offered to pay an additional $7.5 million on 650 claims that had bypassed the commission and gone directly to the insurers.

Mr. Eagleburger said he was encouraged that the pace of dealing with claims was increasing, but he added, "The numbers are nowhere near where they need to be." He said the commission had set a deadline of Dec. 31 for survivors to file claims.

The commission was created in 1998 by American regulators and Jewish organizations, and a half-dozen European insurers agreed to join in hopes of avoiding lawsuits. The United States government has endorsed the commission as the best hope for getting justice for Holocaust victims. Most of the lawsuits have been dropped or settled, but about 20 are pending against Assicurazioni Generali, a big Italian insurer.

Independent Holocaust experts asserted at the hearing that the commission had been outmaneuvered by the insurers.

Henry WaxmanRepresentative Henry A. Waxman of California (left), the committee's ranking Democrat, said that based on commission data, the insurers reject five claims for every one they pay.

"Denials do not have to be justified," said Daniel Kadden, a former aide to the insurance commission in Washington State and a consultant to survivors. "There is no follow-up to see that the companies act on the evidence presented to them."

A major roadblock, Holocaust experts say, has been the refusal of the European insurers to publish the names of owners of life insurance policies sold at the time of the Holocaust.

In many cases the owners died in the Holocaust. Records of transactions were often destroyed when families were ripped apart, and potential beneficiaries have no way of knowing if insurance existed.

At first many insurers refused to pay claims unless survivors could produce copies of policies or death certificates. Now they say they will accept less evidence, but survivors in most cases must determine whether they might have a claim.

In the hearing, Republicans and Democrats as well as independent Holocaust experts expressed support for legislation intended to force the European insurers to publish the names of the policyholders.

Mr. Waxman and Representative Mark Foley, Republican of Florida, have drafted such legislation.

But Mr. Eagleburger and a senior Bush administration official objected today to forcing the companies to publish policyholders' names. Mr. Eagleburger said a listing would provide a jumble of information that would be difficult to process. The administration official, Ambassador Randolph M. Bell, the special envoy for Holocaust issues, said that requiring such a list "would not get any additional claimants and would almost certainly stop the current, now much improved process whereby claimants actually are getting paid."

Mr. Waxman told Mr. Bell, "I don't see the reasoning."

EagleburgerMr. Eagleburger said that the commission had published the names of 500,000 policyholders on its Web site. He said the commission had not determined how many families in the Holocaust bought life insurance.



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