Calif. to examine unpaid insurance claims on pre-WWII policies of Holocaust victims

In 1941, Helena Tirkel was deported from Berlin and sent to the Sobibor work camp in Poland. Luckier than the others who were there, she hid in a garbage cart, which hauled her away to freedom.

Although she left most everything behind, one of the things she managed to take with her was her father's life insurance policy. In 1962, Tirkel tried collecting on the policy, but the insurance firm, Riunione Adriatica di Sicurta, said it wouldn't pay on the grounds of insufficient proof.

"After the war, the survivors would submit claims under the life insurance polices, but the insurers would ask for death certificates. They knew, of course, that the Nazis never printed death certificates but instead had names crossed out in a roster book," said William Palmer, general counsel for the California Department of Insurance.

As an initial step in helping Holocaust survivors receive unpaid claims owed to them by 16 European insurance companies, the California Department of Insurance will sponsor a public hearing on Monday, Nov. 24 in Los Angeles. A January meeting is slated for the Bay Area.

"It is our intention to create a national uproar. To go after the German, Italian and French insurance companies that owe victims of the Holocaust," Palmer said.

In addition to life insurance policies, the department will also examine casualty and property insurance from the late '30s and '40s. This step is specifically geared to help the families of Jewish business owners whose stores were looted during Kristallnacht.

The impetus for the public meetings came in September, after Chuck Quackenbush, California's insurance commissioner, learned about Holocaust survivors' struggle to collect on insurance policies. The Department of Insurance sent out more than 5,800 letters to known survivors and their families, insurance-industry groups and Jewish organizations.

However, some wonder whether the effort may be a bit late.

"The one impression I have from my boss Quackenbush is that he feels that we, the regulators, should have pressed harder earlier; you take the cards dealt to you and you work with them," Palmer said.

Nonetheless, he said the hope is that the November meeting will unearth new information, create public momentum and help locate additional survivors.

Tirkel, the woman who escaped from the death camp, recently passed away in Australia at age 88. However, she is survived by her nephew, Solomon Heitner, 75, of San Rafael. Heitner now holds the insurance policy.

Heitner said the policy belonging to his late grandfather, Moritz Better, was issued in 1931. His grandfather died in the Holocaust.

The Italian insurance company that insured Better is now a subsidiary of Allianz A.G. of Germany.

Is the policy still valid?

"There is no war clause in it," Heitner said. "There is nothing in the policy that restricts the coverage."

The policy was valued at $2,000, but Heitner said the firm should pay more.

Adding "interest and compounding the amount due, the compounded amount should be over $200,000," Heitner said.