Despite signing an agreement Monday allowing an international commission to determine its liability in Holocaust-era life insurance policies, the major Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali insists it will pay no more than $100 million.
A company spokesman, Dan Leonard, told The Jewish Week that Generali was still committed to honoring a $100 million settlement it reached last month with lawyers for survivors and their heirs who hold unpaid policies.
“That agreement is still good and we hope that any outstanding issues between the lawyers and the NAIC [National Association of Insurance Commissioners] can be worked out so that the settlement will stand,” said Leonard.
But Elan Steinberg, the executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said the commissioners and Jewish organizations involved in the issue regard Generali’s $100 million offer as only a “floor” because its liability is believed to be much greater.
He said the international commission established by the NAIC would set up a mechanism to “inspect all archives and records” to determine the exact number of unpaid Holocaust-era claims and their value. Another committee then would calculate the value of those policies today, 53 years after they should have been paid.
Israel Singer, secretary general of the WJC, said the amount of claims is estimated to exceed hundreds of millions of dollars.
One of the lawyers who reached the $100 million settlement with Generali, Edward Fagan, said he was prepared to sue the NAIC and the Jewish groups involved — the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — if the Generali settlement collapsed.
“If they [the Jewish groups] say the settlement is dead, they have violated a specific agreement,” he fumed. “They have reneged on a deal that would put money in survivors’ hands.”
Fagan explained that the WJC had signed a letter of intent that “compelled them, as part of the terms of the settlement, to honor both the settlement agreement and the merging of the [NAIC process].”
The NAIC established an international commission to enable policyholders to receive compensation for policies that 17 European insurance companies refused to honor at the end of the war. In addition to Generali, five other major insurance companies signed an agreement Monday to join the commission, which will investigate policies issued to Holocaust victims between 1920 and 1945.
Since the end of the war, the companies have given various excuses for refusing to pay claims. Among them was a demand for death certificates and an assertion that the Nazis or succeeding communist governments stole all of the money the companies planned to use to pay claims. Jews bought life or property insurance in pre-World War II Europe in the belief they would protect their assets. More were said to have had such policies than bank accounts.
The commission is expected to complete its work in two years and then help policyholders claim their money. Until then, the insurance companies have agreed to deposit money in a humanitarian fund to benefit needy survivors. The exact amount of the fund is yet to be determined, but Steinberg said it would represent a down payment on the policies they would eventually pay.
In a number of related developments this week:n Volkswagen offered $12 million to compensate its World War II slave laborers. It estimated that 1,000 still survive and that most now live in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But Fagan, who sued the German automaker in behalf of slave laborers and their heirs, said he would press his suit because the $12 million offer was insufficient. He said there were perhaps as many as 100,000 slave laborers at Volkswagen and that they or their heirs are entitled to the wages they should have received.
“The fact that they are dead does not mean Volkswagen doesn’t have to pay,” said Fagan. “They are not entitled to sit on that money.”
# Austria announced that it planned to strip the walls of its museums and government offices of hundreds of art works seized by the Nazis and return them to their rightful owners. In addition to paintings, the government vowed to return coins, sculptures, antique furniture, glassware, musical instruments and weapons. Researchers claim that the Museum of the History of Art in Vienna has held 915 objects of doubtful origin for more than 50 years.
# An independent audit of Swiss banks has so far uncovered $51.6 million in 5,570 dormant accounts that were published last year and belong to Holocaust victims. A search of bank records is continuing in an effort to identify all dormant accounts. Switzerland’s two largest banks agreed last month to settle all claims by paying $1.25 billion.
A total of 9,500 claims have been filed and 3,300 have been declared valid. Claims have come from 27 countries. Most of the claims, about 20 percent, have come from the United States.