Mordechai Hareli wanted to recover what was due to him, his wife and their siblings and cousins. What he ended up with were angry family members full of recriminations over insurance money to which they, as heirs of Holocaust victims, were entitled but didn't receive.
Hareli blames a piece of paper - and the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, which told him to fill it out.
Hareli, 72, a retired civil engineer who lives in Holon, was born in Bratislava, then part of Czechoslovakia. He met his wife, Hanna, when they were both children through their families, which were friendly. They and their parents were sent to concentration camps and survived, but not their grandparents, six of whom perished.
Some years ago, Hareli became aware of the possibility that he might be the beneficiary of insurance policies held by his grandparents, as might his wife. ICHEIC, given hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements from European insurance companies which hadn't paid out on Jewish Holocaust victims' life insurance policies, published a list of names of those families who might be eligible. Hareli was on the list.
He and his wife got the forms to submit claims. Their nine siblings and cousins, equally eligible, wanted to know if they should file their own claims or join the Harelis'. Hareli called the commission, based in Washington, and asked what to do. They told him to file one claim under his name and list the rest of the heirs on the form. So he filled out the forms, as did his wife, and waited.
Two and a half years later, in March of 2004, the commission informed the Harelis that it had been "unable to match your claim(s) to any insurance company or archival records to date. However, you provided information that enabled ICHEIC to conclude that the individual(s) named in your claim possibly held some form of insurance. As a result, ICHEIC would like to acknowledge this likelihood with a humanitarian award."
The amount was $1,000, payable to Hareli. His wife got a second $1,000 check made out to her. She, like her husband, cashed it.
They were pleased to receive the sum, though, Hareli says, "We didn't ask for it."
But two weeks later, his relatives had still received nothing. So Hareli e-mailed the commission, and got the following response: "Thank you for your message. The additional heirs listed on your claim form shall receive their Humantarian Awards later this year. Please accept [our] apologies for any inconvenience this has caused."
By the end of the year, nothing had arrived. Hareli contacted ICHEIC again. This time, he says, someone on the phone told him the policy had changed: Instead of each heir getting $1,000, only each claimant - i.e. the person who had filled out the form - was receiving money.
They contacted their relatives and offered to split the $2,000 11 ways. Their siblings and cousins said no thanks. But the relatives were suspicious that, having been promised payouts of their own, they received nothing.
"My wife said she'd rather not have the $1,000 - and not have the quarrels with the relatives," Hareli says.
He has appealed to ICHEIC to no avail.
ICHEIC also did not reply to a Jerusalem Post query.
But earlier this week, Hareli did get a helpful email from the legal counsel for the California Department of Insurance. The department's commissioner, who is also one of ICHEIC's many commissioners, has pushed for more compensation to be given to the many relatives facing a similar situation to Harelis'.
"For US claimants, they have compromised and have agreed to paid siblings of the claimant that are listed on the claim form as additional heirs of the insured. But they tell me that that compromise was extended to US claimants only because US insurance regulators (like me) told claimants to file jointly," the legal counsel wrote. "I discussed your case with them and pointed out that ICHEIC had also advised claimants to file jointly. Unfortunately, it appears that they are not about to change their compromise position."
There is a suggestion that at some point ICHEIC determined it wouldn't be able to afford to pay all the heirs eligible under the Humanitarian Awards, and that the organization was worried about paying out all its money before all the claims had been received and checked.
Hareli understands this, to an extent. But he still doesn't think that makes up for $9,000 his relatives are owed, lost only by following the rules initially laid out by ICHEIC. Or that the process, which by a twist of fate gave him the money, was reasonable. Or that it makes sense that, if he lived in California rather than Israel, his sister would get the money under the "compromise position."
Also, he notes, ICHEIC has announced that it will be closing its operations as of December 31, and not all of its funding has been disbursed.
Specially, he questions why ICHEIC didn't simply distribute less money per claimant, as $1,000 seems to be an arbitrary sum. And, more importantly, he adds, why didn't they check which heirs were Holocaust survivors?
"Some of the people here have a number from Auschwitz, but they have been passed by," he says. "It's an absurd situation."
He notes that one of his cousins is a middle-aged sabra advertising executive who speaks good English. He almost filled out the form because of his office and language skills. "He would have received the Humanitarian Award," Hareli points out with bewilderment.
Meanwhile, his wife's 80-year-old first cousin could never have filled out the claim herself, since she knows no Hebrew or English, and her eyesight was badly damaged by a Nazi guard who struck her in the head during her stay in Theresienstadt. She received nothing.
"She can't fill out the form. Why should she be handicapped? Why should she not get the Humanitarian Award? What kind of criterion is this? The one who fills out the forms is the one who gets the money?" Hareli asks.
The Humanitarian Award was created by ICHEIC to try to provide some sort of funds to those survivors who had no documents to support their potentially valid claims.
"These humanitarian claims payments are a critical component of ICHEIC's overall mission: to pay previously uncompensated Holocaust-era insurance claims," commission chairman and former US secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger was quoted as saying in a press release issued by ICHEIC in August.
"I am particularly gratified that ICHEIC staff were able to research and evaluate these claims where companies could not be identified or no longer existed. These payments are going to individuals that otherwise would have been without recourse to any form of compensation for their Holocaust-era insurance claims," he said, on the occasion of an additional allocation of $10.5 million to pay such claims. In March of 2004, an initial $16m. was assigned for this purpose.
"While no amount of compensation in any form can make up for what Holocaust victims suffered," Eagleburger said, "these payments are an important step in addressing one particular aspect of many wrongs of that time."
But for Hareli the compensation has been bittersweet, the process merely bitter.
To Hareli, "The Humanitarian Award was simply a gross injustice."