After surviving the Holocaust in a Nazi work camp, Marta Drucker Cornell returned to her hometown of Rakovnik, Czechoslovakia, to learn that her father, who was murdered in Auschwitz, had taken out a life insurance policy with Generalli Insurance Company.
“I wouldn’t have known, but there was a decent Czech citizen who came and told me,” she recalled. “He was probably the one who sold my father the policy. He tried to get [the insurance] for me, but they didn’t give it to me. I needed the money badly because I had nothing. My 80-year-old grandmother also survived Terezin and she too had nothing. At that time, we would have settled [the insurance claim] for very little, but they refused.”
Cornell was one of four women who testified this week at a hearing of the State Senate Standing Committee on Insurance, which is investigating the failure of European insurance companies to pay claims to the beneficiaries of Holocaust victims.
The chairman of the committee, Sen. Guy Velella (R-C-Bronx), has introduced legislation that would strengthen the jurisdiction of New York courts to hear claims against such companies. In addition, it would require all companies that do business in the state to explain the status of all outstanding claims and explain the denial of any claims. A company failing to comply might be barred from doing business in the state for 10 years. Velella said he hoped the legislation could be adopted before the end of the session in June.
A representative of one of the insurance companies, The AXA Group, Wendy Cooper, told the committee that her company was committed to ensuring “that justice and equity prevail” in resolving claims. She said her firm has joined about a half-dozen others in pledging to establish an independent commission that will investigate and resolve all claims.But Edward Fagan, a lawyer for about 1,000 beneficiaries of Holocaust victims, said he believes the proposed commission is “doomed to failure because the European insurance regulators will not allow it. It’s their job to protect their industry. That’s why it has to happen in the United States because in Europe we are not going to get justice — we can’t.”
Among those who testified at the hearing was Douglas Talley, vice president of a claims recovery service, Risk International, who said recently discovered documents revealed that insurance companies were all too anxious to cancel the policies of Jews.
“Insurers appeared to be the creators of Nazi policy, not the victims,” he said, adding that the documents demonstrated “very virulent anti-Semitic attitudes in insurance companies.”
For instance, although the Nazis voided property damage insurance of Jewish policy holders after Kristallnacht, the three-day attack on Jews and their property in November 1938, insurance companies on their own then began canceling other types of policies held by Jews.The executive director of the World Jewish Congress, Elan Steinberg, said the material damage to the Jewish people from the Holocaust is now estimated at between $23 billion and $32 billion in 1945 dollars — about $250 billion today. That includes $10 billion to $15 billion in lost income; $1 billion to $5 billion in the value of slave labor performed by hundreds of thousands of Jews; and $12 billion in seized assets, such as bank accounts and insurance policies.
Cornell said she tried a second time to collect on her fathers’ policies when she moved to the United States in 1964 and wrote to Generalli to press her claim. But Generalli replied that it was not responsible because it had been nationalized.
“That is not true because it had time from 1945, when I first applied, until it was nationalized in 1948 [to pay the insurance],” said Cornell. “My father bought and paid premiums from 1924 to 1942. He stopped when he was put in a concentration camp. They [Generalli] said he stopped paying premiums in 1942 and that therefore the policy ended. … He and my mother had about 10 policies in all.”
She said she found the insurance policies by accident in her father’s medical calendar, “which I kept because I wanted to have something to remember him.”
Another survivor, Janina Atkins, testified that her maternal grandfather was the director of the Warsaw office of Generalli and that her father was its legal counsel. Her grandfather died two days before the family was transported to the Warsaw Ghetto; her father died in a concentration camp. She said she was told of their life insurance policies after the war by a secretary of Generalli who helped hide her after she escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto. When she wrote to Generalli, it said it was not responsible for policies issued from the Warsaw office.
After she became part of a class-action suit last September against Generalli and other European insurance companies, Generalli for the first time contacted her to say it had found her grandfather’s policy — but not her father’s — and that it was canceled in 1931 for non-payment of premiums. She wrote back to say it was “inconceivable” that he would not have maintained the policy and that it matured in 1940, five years before Generalli’s assets “were allegedly taken over by the Polish government.”
In another development, the New Jersey Assembly passed a bill to ban state investments in Swiss banks or financial institutions unless they cooperate in returning assets to the family of Holocaust victims. The banks called the move “ill-timed and ill-conceived,” noting that global settlement talks are under way.