When the German insurance company Allianz bid for the naming rights to the Meadowlands stadium in 2008, there was such an outcry over the company’s past complicity with the Nazis that the talks were called off.
For the past three years, Holocaust survivors have picketed the annual Allianz Championship, a professional golf tournament in Boca Raton, Fla., holding aloft signs claiming Allianz has refused to pay $2.5 billion in Holocaust-era insurance policies.
But now, a Jewish organization is preparing to honor a senior vice president of Allianz North America — and many survivors are stunned by the news.
“What’s happening to us is a shame, and they have the moxy to honor a guy from Allianz?” said Jack Rubin of Boynton Beach, Fla., referring to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. “Haven’t we suffered enough?”
The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous provides financial aid to more than 600 non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust and preserves their legacy through a national education program.
Rubin is on the executive board of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA, which last week sent the Jewish Foundation a letter asking it to cancel its Dec. 3 dinner or to select an honoree other than one “whose corporate parent collaborated with the Nazi regime and profited from the deaths of our loved ones and thousands of other Holocaust victims.”
Allianz insured facilities and personnel at concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau, and its chief executive wore an SS uniform and served as Hitler’s economics minister. During the war, it refused to pay the life insurance policies of Jews, instead sending the money of Jewish beneficiaries to the Nazis.
“It would be a shame and a permanent blot on the organization’s excellent work if JFR were to now dishonor the Jewish victims of the Holocaust by accepting money from Allianz,” the survivors wrote, adding that they were “shocked” and “dismayed” that Allianz was selected.
Stanlee Stahl, the Jewish Foundation’s executive director, declined comment but her organization’s spokesman, Stan Steinreich, issued a statement defending the organization’s choice of honoree.
It said the Allianz executive who is to receive the group’s Recognition of Goodness Award, Peter Lefkin, “has spent many years in Washington advocating in behalf of important causes to Americans and the Jewish community and is worthy of being honored by our organization.”
“While we are sensitive to the feelings expressed by some Holocaust survivors and their families, Allianz never killed anyone and they participated fully in the settlement reached with leading European insurance companies that paid millions of dollars to survivors,” the Jewish Foundation said. “It was the feeling of our board that after nearly 70 years following World War II our community should be able to honor a man who deserves it and that we should be able to look beyond the accusations made against the company that he works for.”
That latter comment raised the ire of Menachem Rosensaft, a leader of the second generation of Holocaust survivors and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
“We need to be extremely careful, certainly during the lifetime of the survivors, not to suggest that their suffering and their losses are in any way being minimized or disregarded,” he told The Jewish Week.
Steinreich, speaking for the Jewish Foundation, said “Allianz of America is not the same company that sold policies to Jews in Germany and other European countries overrun by the Nazis. It is a different company, owned by different shareholders and run by a new generation of executives.”
But Esther Kandel of Los Angeles, a consultant to Jewish and pro-Israel projects whose father survived Auschwitz, said simply, “Allianz is Allianz.”
Allianz North America is a wholly owned direct subsidiary of Allianz SE based in Munich.
She said she called a senior official of the Jewish Foundation to voice her objection to the honoree.
“I told him that his foundation does outstanding work,” she recalled. “He said he hopes their good work will not be tainted by accepting money from Allianz. I said it will be; don’t take it. I said we don’t want a company that insured Auschwitz giving you money.”
A survivor from New York told The Jewish Week that he spoke with the same official and was told that Allianz was donating $1 million to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.
Roman Kent, a survivor and president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, would say only that Lefkin “has been making contributions every year.”
“Allianz today in the U.S. is not the Allianz in Germany,” he insisted. “And we are not honoring Allianz but Peter, who was instrumental in supporting righteous gentiles.”
In its letter last week to the Jewish Foundation, the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA noted that in undisputed Congressional testimony economist Sidney Zubludoff said Allianz’s “unpaid obligations on policies sold to Holocaust victims exceeds $2.5 billion in today’s value.” But instead of paying survivors and their heirs, it said Allianz sponsors sporting events and hires lobbyists “to thwart survivors’ efforts to obtain justice in U.S. courts.”
It was referring to the thus far futile attempt of survivors to convince Congress to pass legislation giving them the right to sue Allianz and other European insurance companies for unpaid insurance claims.
Kent brushed aside the assertion that Allianz owes survivors billions in unpaid claims.
“They are taking outrageous numbers from the air,” he insisted. “The question is, how long and against whom you can claim? Is the German generation the same that killed our parents and children? It’s not the same. Even the Bible tells us that you cannot hold responsible children for their father’s sins.”
Leo Rechter, founder of the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors, agreed that Lefkin was not involved in the Holocaust.
“But before you honor somebody, the people he represents have to have a clean record with survivors and have to have made at least a decent effort to compensate the people who had insurance policies,” he said.
Rechter acknowledged that Allianz participated in ICHEIC (the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims), but he said former insurance commissioners and an ICHEIC arbiter concluded that the commission did not pay survivors according to previously established rules.
“It paid less than a fraction of what it was supposed to pay,” he said, referring to the $300 million that was paid. “Only 14,000 people were compensated and the rest got 1,000 as a charity donation. There is nothing we can do about that, but to now turn around and honor the people who are currently responsible for that organization is making a mockery of justice. … Even after 70 years we are hunting down Nazi criminals and putting them on trial. There are some things that cannot be forgotten.”
The American Jewish Committee’s Rabbi Andrew Baker, director for International Jewish Affairs, supported the Jewish Foundation’s choice of honoree and maintained that this is “not an issue of survivors against non-survivors.”
He defended Allianz as one of several German companies that have “done a great deal to address their own obligations for the material losses of the Holocaust.”
“I don’t think that by definition there is any reason why they should not be evaluated as one would any business in terms of being deserving of the honor,” he said. “It seems from the critics that by virtue of it being a German company it is disqualified. …
“But the company today been a good citizen and tried to make amends and live up to a reputation of being a responsible German company that is now open to its past history and the obligations that flow from it. In recent years it stood up and addressed claims against it for what took place in its name. If it had not participated in the ICHEIC process and commissioned a critical history of its own activities, then it would not be deserving of an honor.”
But survivor Jack Rubin asked, “If it is such a good company, why not pay the policies owed to survivors and their heirs? Why should it hold onto that money?”
Asked what he planned to do if the Jewish Foundation does not change its honoree, Rubin replied: “We picked Allianz in Florida. But those of us still involved are getting old. I cannot fly to New York and run around in front of a building there. And those survivors in New York who would like to do it are 85- and 90-year-olds.”
Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which opposed the attempt of Allianz to purchase the naming rights to the Meadowlands stadium in 2008, said on Tuesday that while Allianz has sought to atone for past misdeeds, it is “jarring” that the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous would choose to honor someone representing a company associated more with “destruction” than with “rescuing.”