US rules on Holocaust insurance settlement

The Nazis were about to arrest his family in 1944, and Alex Moskovic remembers his father burying family documents in a 3-foot-deep hole under the shed behind their home in Czechoslovakia. When he returned after the Holocaust the only survivor in his family, Moskovic found the house in Sobrance had been pillaged and the shed torn down. The buried cache, probably including insurance policies, was never found. On Wednesday, a US District Court in New York will hold a hearing on objections raised by Moskovic and five other Holocaust survivors seeking to block a class action settlement by Assicurazioni Generali. That is the Italian insurance company Moskovic believes issued policies to his father and uncles for which he would be the heir. If Generali's settlement with lawyers for claimants is approved, it will close the book for thousands of people who say they could be beneficiaries. If the court stops it, Moskovic and others may pursue larger compensation packages, although with no guarantee of success. Judge George Daniels may decide Wednesday or delay a ruling for several weeks in what is one of the final restitution battles for Holocaust victims. Among his arguments, Moskovic says a long-closed Nazi archive in the German town of Bad Arolsen may contain evidence of his family's insurance policies to support his claims. Last May, the 11-nation committee overseeing the archive, run by the Red Cross' International Tracing Service, agreed to open the vast collection of files to research. That decision requires ratification, however, and may take years before coming into force. "I'm very leery about the whole thing," Moskovic says of Generali's settlement plan. For years, the company refused to pay claims for prewar insurance policies for which it said it no longer carried liability, he said. "Why is Generali so anxious to settle right now, before these archives at Bad Arolsen open up?" said Moskovic, 75, who lives in Hobe Sound, Fla. Robert Swift, a Philadelphia lawyer who negotiated the class-action settlement with Generali, says there is no reason to believe insurance documents are stored at Bad Arolsen. "We really don't think there's going to be any information in there with regard to policies issued by Generali," he told The Associated Press. "It wasn't the nature of those archives. It's basically operational documents that were maintained at the concentration camps." Reto Meister, director of the International Tracing Service, said the archive has "no collection of documents that we received from private European insurance companies." However, he said, copies of insurance policies could exist in the files of individuals, but they would have to be searched name by name. The index registers the names of 17.5 million people murdered or persecuted by Hitler's regime. The Nazis seized insurance policies along with the assets of Jews and other oppressed groups and cashed in many of them. After the war, insurance companies rejected claims by survivors or their heirs who lacked proof of valid outstanding policies. Meister said the Bad Arolsen archive has arrest records that list people whose property and assets were confiscated, but the lists give no details of what was seized. Insurance companies argue policyholders were compensated when Germany negotiated restitution payments with the World Jewish Congress in the 1950s and say their own assets supporting Holocaust-era policies were confiscated by communist governments in Eastern Europe. The New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which continues to distribute compensation, says more than $60 billion has been paid to survivors, heirs, the state of Israel and Jewish charities. Ten years ago, Holocaust survivors filed a class action suit against the big European insurers that have affiliates in the United States, claiming the companies wrongly withheld payment on policies on which they earned bountiful profits. The lawsuit was put on hold in 1998 when the companies agreed to create the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims to deal with unpaid claims and find a formula to put a value on policies issued as early as 1920. Headed by Lawrence Eagleburger, a former U.S. secretary of state, the commission received more than 91,000 claims before its March 31, 2004, deadline. More than half were thrown out. Of the rest, the commission Web site says it paid US$234 million to nearly 16,800 people as of October. Some 27,000 others were told their claims could not immediately be validated, but were given US$1,000 each from a "humanitarian fund." Among the latter group was Moskovic, who said he accepted a US$1,000 check in 2004 on the understanding Generali was continuing to research his claim. But he heard no more from the international commission or the company. "If you ask survivors, they'll say it was an outrage, a joke," said Samuel Dubbin, a Miami lawyer for Moskovic and the five other objectors. "The payments were a fraction of what was due. It was meant to take the insurance industry under the radar." Dubbin faults the companies for failing to publish in a timely way the names from their records of prewar policyholders and for refusing to open their archives to claimants. Moskovic, a retired TV sports producer, said he had no idea how much insurance was bought by his father, who owned a general store and two properties. He remembers, however, that his parents talked about insurance. Generali separately reached a settlement with claimants' attorneys covering more than 1,000 people whose cases are unresolved. Under agreement, Generali, which already has paid US$135 million, would accept new claims until this March 31. Claimants would be paid according to the international commission's formula if their claims prove justified. After that deadline, the settlement says, "Generali will be released as to all Holocaust era insurance claims, and the class action litigation will be dismissed with prejudice." Each of the four claimants serving as representatives for the class action would be paid up to US$5,000 under the proposed settlement. The class action lawyers would be paid US$3.25 million. Moskovic, in a letter to Judge Daniels, said the settlement would "slam the door shut on me and thousands of other survivors who were ignored and mistreated by ICHEIC and Generali." Swift, the class-action lawyer, argues the offer is fair. "There is such a thing as a statute of limitations. Under normal circumstances, you'd never be able to bring in claims that are this old," he said.