The recent $20 million settlement between a major American insurance firm and the heirs of Armenian policyholders killed in the Armenian Genocide had its genesis, indirectly, in the memoirs written nearly 90 years ago by a Jewish-American diplomat.
Henry Morgenthau Sr., the German native who served as U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I, wrote in 1918 in “Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story” about an exchange with Talaat Pasha, Turkey’s Interior Minister and an architect of the Genocide.
“The New York Life Insurance Company and the Equitable Life of New York had for years done considerable business among the Armenians,” Morgenthau wrote. “One day Talaat made what was perhaps the most astonishing request I had ever heard. ‘I wish,’ Talaat now said, ‘that you would get the American life insurance companies to send us a complete list of their Armenian policyholders.’
“They are practically all dead now,” victims of the Genocide, the Turkish official told the ambassador, “and have left no heirs to collect the money. It of course all escheats to the State. The government is the beneficiary now.”
Morgenthau lost his temper.“ ‘You will get no such list from me,’ I said, and I got up and left him.”
Vartkes Yeghiayan, an Armenian-American attorney in California, read this story in Morgenthau’s book in 1988 and decided to bring a class-action suit against New York Life.
The result was the settlement, announced earlier this year at the New York office of the Armenian General Benevolent Union.
New York Life, acknowledging some 2,400 unpaid policies sold to Armenians before the Genocide, agreed on a $20 million payment to nine Armenian organizations, including the AGBU, and descendants of policyholders who filed claims by last month’s deadline.
Participants in the AGBU ceremony said the settlement, the first known one to kin of people who were killed in the Genocide, was inspired by the reparations and insurance payments received over the last several decades by survivors of the Holocaust.
Morgenthau was given due credit at the event.
The ambassador, who died in 1946, is considered a hero in Armenia, where a tree in his honor stands on the Walk of Righteous Non-Armenians. His grandson, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, was granted honorary Armenian citizenship.
“I was very aware of his involvement,” Morgenthau said of his grandfather. “He had a lot of friends in the Armenian community.”
After returning to the United States from his posting in Constantinople, Morgenthau Sr., who was active in Jewish affairs and was a founder of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, took up the cause of the Armenians.
While in Turkey, he had helped rescue an unknown number of Armenians.
“I’ve had people walk up to me and say, ‘Your grandfather saved my life,’ ” Morgenthau said. “He did a lot of things he never talked about.”
In a 1915 dispatch to the State Department, the ambassador wrote that “a campaign of race extermination is in progress.” He continued to press the then-neutral United States to take actions against the Genocide.
“When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations [that constituted the main form of the Genocide], they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well,” Morgenthau Sr. wrote in his memoirs. “Perhaps the one event in history that most resembles the Armenian deportations was the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella.”
One time a prominent member of the German Jewish community — Germany and Turkey were wartime allies — approached Morgenthau Sr., appealing to the envoy “as one Jew to another” to stop lobbying for the Armenians. Turkey and Germany might seek to have Morgenthau recalled, jeopardizing his career, the visitor said.
“Then you go back to the German Embassy, and … say … go ahead and have me recalled,” Morgenthau Sr. answered. “If I am to suffer martyrdom, I can think of no better cause in which to be sacrificed. In fact, I would welcome it, for I can think of no greater honor than to be recalled because I, a Jew, have been exerting all my powers to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Christians.”
Morgenthau said he heard such stories about his grandfather over the years.
“He certainly had an influence on me and my father,” he said.
Morgenthau has been active in the pro-Armenian cause. And his father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., secretary of the Treasury under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, used his influence with the president to establish the War Refugee Board, which late in World War II saved more than 200,000 Jews from the Holocaust.