All across the country the commissioners heard stories of corporate indifference and even hostility toward the survivors. They were told the company no longer existed or it had been nationalized by the Communists and these claims were no longer their problem. Or they were told they needed a death certificate in order to collect on a legitimate policy.
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Significantly, it was held on November 10, , the 59 th anniversary of an event called Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. It was a night of horror throughout Germany. Synagogues, Jewish homes and shops went up in flames and several Jews, men, women and children, were shot or otherwise slain while trying to escape burning to death. No one seems to know exactly how many Jews were murdered that night. The ultimate number probably exceeds even official estimates. Records are clear, however, that the event's architects—namely Reinhard Heydrich and Hermann Goering—had no interest in underestimating the damages or the body count.
They were pleased with how well things had gone and disappointed they couldn't have gone further. There was at least one group, however, in addition to the victims themselves, who were not pleased with the results: the property and casualty insurers of Germany. On November 12, Dr. Eduard Hilgard, head of a federation of German insurers and a director of Allianz, met with Nazi leaders. The Nazi solution was simple: Don't pay.
Or rather, they would pay the claims of any Aryan Germans who had inadvertently lost property in the melee, but all claims of German Jews would be categorically denied.
Claims of foreign Jews would be honored, but only because officials feared the Third Reich's international reputation might be harmed. Hunt, president of Risk International Services of Houston. We have documents that indicate that this arrangement, established to apply to this singular property damage claim, was expanded at the suggestion and entrepreneurial creativity of the insurance industry to also apply to life insurance claims and virtually every other category of insurance. Terrell characterizes the work of his company as "insurance archeology.
But when Hunt heard about the work of the commissioners, he faxed Senn a memo, saying that before anyone could collect on a Holocaust-era insurance policy, they'd have to find the policy. Hunt and members of his staff worked pro bono at first, poring over Holocaust-era archives in the U. But rather than reconstructing the cultural heritage of Eastern European Jews, Hunt's sleuths were looking for clues, signposts in the torturous paper trail of post-war Europe that would lead to a smoking gun.
They brought to the search a trained eye, alert to documents that others might consider unimportant.
And they found what they were looking for. Hunt calls it the Salomon Korner document, named for an Austrian Jew who held a life insurance policy issued by Adriatica, a large Italian insurance company at the time, now a subsidiary of Allianz. The document is printed on the letterhead of the state police of Austria, a form on which a state police functionary would type the name of an individual and the identity of the asset to be confiscated.
He would then send it to whomever had custody or control of the asset and order the asset to be sold and the proceeds sent to the Reich's treasury. In Solomon Korner's case, the document was his life insurance policy. We do not know for a fact that Adriatica paid that claim to the Reich's treasury, but it's certainly reasonable to assume it did.
Perhaps more importantly, Adriatica knows and that's one reason we need to get into the files of the life insurance companies to determine exactly what they did in each instance of a Jewish life insurance policy. But in a search such as this, one piece of evidence seldom stands alone; disparate pieces tend to shed light on each other, pointing out a pattern, telling a story.
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What Hunt's researchers also found were documents relating to the aftermath of that famous, post-Kristallnacht meeting. Letters on insurance company letterhead to the Third Reich that point to enthusiastic complicity in the denial of insurance proceeds to Jews. We believe there are hundreds of thousands of those documents in the files of the insurance companies.
They would have to maintain such files to explain and justify their action of paying the proceeds to the Reich's treasury. He's not kidding. We know the source and could demonstrate it in a court of law if we had to, but for now the documents speak for themselves. This very document has been found by other archivists and, in fact, the insurance company itself takes great pride in the fact that the only reason we found it is that they put it in the public domain to be found.
Which is true. So it ultimately came from Adriatica itself. It would be hard to imagine a more hapless and unenviable position: Sitting in a New York hearing room, facing a panel of hostile politicians and insurance commissioners, defending your client's refusal to pay insurance benefits to sympathetic claimants who happen to be aging survivors of the Holocaust. William Brodsky may be a tough, experienced New York trial attorney but this could not have been the high point of his day. Alfonse D'Amato R-N.
He was brandishing a letter Brodsky had signed on behalf of his client, the Swiss insurer Winterthur. The letter expressed Winterthur's view that U. D'Amato begged to differ. I have to tell you something, as commissioners. If I had these guys doing business in my town, I'd do everything I could to let people know how morally bankrupt and deceitful they are! Things went not much better for James Davis, a lawyer representing Basler Leben, another Swiss insurer being sued under the class action by Holocaust survivors.
He started by wishing everybody a good morning, then was informed it was actually afternoon. Commissioner Senn went on to make him even more uncomfortable. She wanted to know what Basler Leben had done to settle the matter of unpaid insurance claims, and she was clearly not impressed with the answers. If you're being called morally corrupt, if you're the subject of charges that you believe are unjustified, I suppose you may not be inclined to invite the person who's making the charges into your living room.
Quackenbush: I've got to say that's the most amazing testimony I've ever heard from an insurance company. The last company that had that kind of attitude toward me, I seized a billion-dollar operation and sold it off back into the private sector because of just that type of attitude. Davis: Well, if you're interested in a dialogue and you find my comments amazing, I think it's fair to say a certain amount of amazement ought to be allocated to your response to me. Davis: I'm trying to speak flatly because that's the way you've spoken to me. Basler Leben is not in California.
Not your typical, boring committee hearing. But it's an emotional issue, ripe for moral outrage and political grandstanding, and it's not always easy to tell the difference. It's an issue that has brought out the worst and the best of Europe's insurers. For the past 10 months she and her colleagues have been fielding more than 1, claims banking as well as insurance from all over the world, tracing them, documenting them, and trying to come to some kind of final resolution while the claimant can still benefit.
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It's no easy task. Besides the historical complexities and variety of languages of prewar and postwar Europe, the companies themselves have often been less than forthcoming. No matter how much documentation they provide, it never seems to be enough. If they provide policy numbers and premium receipts, the companies need birth dates and last-known address. Or the birth date and address may be known, but nothing can be done without a policy number.
And even when all the hoops have been jumped through, they're met with an excruciating, months-long silence before being told it's not the company's problem, take it up with somebody else.
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Everybody suffered. We're all agreed. I'm not asking for sympathy when I submit a claim. I'm asking for the fulfillment of a contract. When Lillie handled the claim of the daughter of a Holocaust victim, for instance, she learned that the policy in question had been deemed an heirless asset by the insurance company. This came as something of a surprise to the policyholder's daughter.
She's thoroughly offended that her father's account was deemed heirless. There were banks in her case that handed over money to her as the legitimate heir. She's the sole survivor.
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That a Swiss insurer decided that its fiduciary responsibility was not to the sole surviving daughter was extraordinary to her. And if that's any indication of how other victims were handled, I think there are some questions that ought to be asked. But the combative tone of some companies seems to be softening.