Prague, 31 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- For more than a half-century, many European insurance companies have insisted that they owed nothing on policies bought by Jews before or during World War Two and, after the Jews were murdered by the Nazis, never paid out to their beneficiaries.
But last week (Aug. 25) four major European insurance companies finally agreed to resolve the nettlesome question of the unpaid policies of Holocaust victims. Their family-supported claims, now recognized as legitimate, are expected to cost the companies hundreds of millions of dollars.
The accord, reached in New York, was the last in a series of capitulations over the past month by European banks and insurers who have finally yielded to the threat of law-suits by Holocaust victims and their families. They did so only after it became clear that there was an imminent prospect of the law-suits triggering U.S. federal, state and city embargoes, as well as possible limitations imposed by other governments, on their world-wide businesses.
So after 50 years of stonewalling, the European banks and insurance companies have now chosen one of two methods for fair restitution: They have either agreed to pay out directly thousands of millions of dollars, which they have long denied owning to Holocaust victims, or --as in the case of the four European insurers-- to open their books and submit Jewish claims to independent arbitration.
After negotiations with the World Jewish Congress and the U.S.' National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the New York agreement was signed by Germany's Allianz AG --Europe's biggest insurer-- France's large AXA group, Winterthur, Baseler and Zurich of Switzerland, and Italy's Assicurazione Generali. A few days earlier the Italian company, founded by Italian Jews more than a century ago and Eastern Europe's biggest insurer in the 1920s and 1930s, had agreed to pay 100 million dollars to settle outstanding Holocaust claims.
Last year, Jewish Holocaust survivors and victims' families filed suit in a U.S. federal court in New York against 16 European insurance companies. They charged the insurers with withholding, concealing or converting the cash value and proceeds of policies sold to European Jews before 1946.
The insurers said --as they have since the end of the War-- that they were reluctant to redeem policies bought by Holocaust victims because their beneficiaries could not produce death certificates. The beneficiaries replied --as they have since the War's end-- by pointing out that Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps did not bother to provide individual certificates for the millions of Jews they exterminated collectively. Last week's agreement effectively resolved the issue.
A fortnight before the New York accord (Aug. 12), Switzerland's two biggest commercial banks had reached a landmark Holocaust settlement of their own. After two years of often acrimonious negotiations with Jewish groups and attorneys for tens of thousands of plaintiffs in a class-action suit, Union Bank (UB) and Credit Suisse (CS) agreed to pay $1.25 billion on unreturned assets of Holocaust victims. Still, most European banks and insurers involved in Holocaust matters have finally acceded to long-standing claims for restitution from survivors or their families. The obvious question is: Why now, well over 50 years since the Holocaust occurred? One part of the answer comes from a leader of the international Jewish organization that has been most involved in the settlement negotiations. World Jewish Congress Executive Director Elan Steinberg told RFE/RL in a telephone interview from New York:
"The most important factor (in the recent Holocaust settlements) is probably surprising to most people: It is because we are 50 years later. (Even) if we had all the information that we have today 50 years ago, you would have (still) been dealing (with individuals who themselves played a role in the drama:) the teller behind the cage in the Swiss bank, the insurance company representative responsible ...for the transgressions, for the oversights--and for the criminal acts. That's a personal responsibility, and those kinds of activities gave rise to the cover-up and immobility that we have seen in past 50 years. Today, there is an institutional responsibility, but the person you're dealing with is not the person who is personally liable, individually guilty....That made it possible to arrive at solutions. It (has taken) two generations until institutions can confront these issues."
The reason why so many banks and insurers capitulated to Holocausts claims only in recent weeks probably has mostly to do with the nature of Europe's summer calendar and the companies' clear, if unexpressed, wish for the least possible publicity for their actions among their share-holders. During the month of August, many vacationing Europeans don't bother to read newspapers or watch television news regularly. That's likely one major reason why August 1998 turned out to be the moment for the public change-of-mind by the banks and insurers who, Jewish claimants said, had refused them their due since the War's end.
(This is part one of a three-part series.)