Will survivors insurance claims ever get paid

More than 30 years after he first tried to collect on his dead father's insurance policy, Holocaust survivor Ernest Smetana hasn't seen a dime.

Now 82 and suffering ill health following a stroke, the San Francisco resident doesn't expect to see the policy redeemed in his lifetime.

The insurance company "has been dragging it out for years already without doing anything," he said. "If they wait long enough, maybe they won't have to pay."

Despite his pessimism, Smetana appeared in San Francisco last week before California Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush at a hearing, the third of its kind, to investigate why so many insurance claims to Holocaust survivors remain unpaid to this day.

The hearings come as a multibillion dollar federal class-action lawsuit gets under way against 15 European insurance companies, some of which do business in the United States and all of which are believed to have major assets here. Quackenbush has petitioned to join that case.

Smetana, accompanied by his son Ron at last week's hearing, told Quackenbush how he first tried to collect on his father's insurance policy during a trip to Europe in the mid-1960s. Then, the Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali told him the policy had been canceled over non-payment of the premium.

"My father couldn't pay the premium from Dachau," the Austrian-born Smetana said quietly.

Shaking his head, Quackenbush said he has heard many such stories.

"Many insurers do business in this state through their subsidiaries," he told those assembled for more than three hours in a Golden Gate University auditorium. "We have the authority and will take administrative action against those companies if they do not honor their insurance commitments."

Like Smetana, other survivors and their family members in attendance expressed little hope of seeing those commitments kept. But even the tiniest possibility of restitution was enough to spur their presence.

"Maybe my son and my daughter and my niece could benefit from it," Smetana said.

Because she has no detailed information on her father's policies, Gloria Lyon hesitated to testify at first. Friends convinced her to go.

"My father had a whole portfolio of insurance; I even remember the container that held his contracts," said the San Francisco resident, who survived Auschwitz as a teenager. But "I have no idea what the name of the company is, the policy numbers. I don't know on what basis I can put in a claim."

Quackenbush, however, reassured Lyon her situation is far from unusual. After all, many survivors were children at the time of the war and were unfamiliar with their parents' financial dealings. Documentation of those interactions, furthermore, was often destroyed in the war or left behind in the rush to emigrate.

"Someplace in Europe, in some vault, some archive, there is a list with your father's name on it," Quackenbush told Lyon.

On hand at the hearing to address the challenge of settling outstanding claims without documentation was Terrell Hunt, president of the Houston-based Risk International. The independent insurance claims recovery firm is currently attempting to get companies to open their files.

In the last 90 days, Hunt said, his firm has found evidence of 21 claimants with policies taken out from 13 different companies during and after the war.

"We are here with the message of hope, urgency, action," he added.

Given past experiences, some in the audience may have trouble swallowing that message.

Ron Smetana, for example, described a year spent winding through Generali's byzantine bureaucracy in an attempt to recover his grandfather's policy.

In response to Generali advertisements saying the company wants to cooperate in the search for claims, he has written several letters and called the company's new "Policy Information Center." No one has called back.

"It appears to be nothing more than a cruel hoax or slick publicity while they wait for the death of a generation," said the younger Smetana, a deputy state attorney general who prosecutes white-collar criminals.

"These guys are right up there," he said.

Paola Kulp of San Francisco also had frustrating dealings with Generali, which was founded by a group of Jewish merchants in 1831, began the Migdal insurance company in prestate Israel and calls itself the leading insurer in the Jewish state today.

Kulp's father, now 98, worked as an executive for the company before being dismissed because he is Jewish. His daughter is certain he had Generali-issued life and property insurance policies, but the policies are now nowhere to be found.

"I would just like to be able to locate the policies and be able to provide for my parents a better life — whatever they have left," Kulp said.

Generali — which has a branch licensed by Quackenbush's department — has said it is searching through company archives for lost policies. In June, the company announced it would establish a $12 million philanthropic fund in honor of Generali policyholders who perished in the Holocaust.

At last week's hearing in San Francisco, however, no one from Generali was on hand to address those policyholders and their heirs who are still alive.

In fact, of 10 companies asked to attend the hearing, only Germany's Allianz AG — which owns the large Fireman's Fund insurance company — sent a spokesman to the hearing. Quackenbush said he will subpoena the other companies at future gatherings.

For his part, Christopher Worthley of Allianz's Munich office, said, "Our senior management is actively, openly and honestly confronting the company's history and is unequivocally committed to resolving this matter as expeditiously as possible."

He urged those with questions about possible claims to call Allianz's 24-hour multilingual helpline for Holocaust inquiries. In the United States, the toll-free number is (800) 411-0118.

So far, Worthley said, the helpline has received telephone inquiries from some 800 people with more than 1,900 possible policies. In more than 1,600 requests, no connection to Allianz could be established, he said. Of the 200 or so remaining claims, 31 were found to have been previously paid out directly to policyholders or beneficiaries.

Fifty-nine involved policies that were settled by the government of the Federal Republic of Germany, which assumed legal responsibility for life insurance policies confiscated in Nazi Germany as part of the postwar restitution program.

To date, Worthley said, Allianz has extended offers to pay seven claimants — five in Israel, two in the United States — for policies on which no payment has been made.

"We want to settle unpaid life insurance claims without delay," Worthley said. "Elderly people cannot be kept waiting for the outcome of lengthy court proceedings."

Rene Siemens, a Los Angeles attorney representing the West Coast plaintiffs in the federal class action suit, couldn't agree more. One man, he noted, could not testify because he passed away.

In that man's case, "justice delayed is justice denied," asserted Siemens, adding that insurance companies are doing their best to hold up the process.

"We're told by the companies: `You're suing the wrong people. We don't have the money. The Nazis confiscated the money. The communist government confiscated the money,'" said Siemens, whose firm Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe has set up a national hotline for Holocaust survivors at (800) 899-4341.

At the hearing, however, Siemens produced a new set of declassified documents that support evidence of a revolving door policy between Nazis and insurance companies eager to stay in the Nazis' good graces.

The transcripts implicate Generali and Allianz, among others.

"The documents suggest that Allianz cut a sweetheart deal with the Nazis, allowing the company to keep most of the money without having to pay on Jewish claims," Siemens said.

Dutch-born survivor Louis de Groot, for one, is not surprised by such allegations. The only member of his family to emerge from the Holocaust alive, the Berkeley resident has spent years trying to recover his father's life insurance policy from a British insurance company with offices in Amsterdam. He has not seen a cent.

"It seems like a wide-ranging conspiracy to deprive Holocaust survivors of their assets," he said. "I never had any hope I would get money. I don't have any hope now."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.