Ante upped in battle over survivors unpaid claims

LOS ANGELES — California Insurance Commisioner Chuck Quackenbush, who has been holding a series of state hearings to investigate unpaid claims to Holocaust surivors and their heirs, has upped the ante in his pursuit of information.

In preparation for the next hearing — on Friday, Feb. 19 in San Francisco — Quackenbush has subpoenaed five executives of one of Europe's largest insurance companies, the Generali Insurance Company (Assicurazioni Generali) of Trieste, Italy.

Quackenbush said he had taken this action after inviting Generali representatives to three separate public hearings — without response.

"We're 50 years behind and wasting time, which is why I am ordering Generali to come forward…I demand a public accounting," Quackenbush announced at a news conference held at the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Wednesday of last week.

If Generali fails to cooperate, the commissioner warned, he is ready to "pull their license" to do business in California. The company's assets currently amount to $22 million in the state and $125 million across the United States.

The upcoming meeting will take place at 10 a.m. at the insurance department's office at 45 Fremont St. Quackenbush held an earlier San Francisco meeting on Jan. 14, at which complaints were heard about Generali and other companies.

A Generali spokesman, Dan Leonard, reached by phone, said the company was ready to meet with Quackenbush in a private session, as it had with insurance commissioners of other states. Leonard added that Generali could not meet in front of the media because it is a defendant on similar charges in a class action suit pending in a New York federal court.

In addition to Quackenbush's announcment, the news conference also detailed a $135 million suit by a private family against Generali for allegedly stonewalling demands for payment on policies taken out by Holocaust victims and survivors.

Dramatic, and at times emotional, testimony was given at the news conference by the descendants of Moshe "Mor" Stern and his wife, Regina. Those descendants now live in the United States, Israel and Great Britain.

Stern, an affluent wine and spirits producer in Uzshghorod, Hungary, had six sons and one daughter. Between 1929 and 1939, he took out large insurance policies (and a dowry policy for his daughter) through Generali's Prague office.

He prepaid premiums through 1944, on policies worth about $1.5 million. That sum, with accrued interest, is now worth $10 million, the heirs believe.

Moshe Stern, his wife and three sons perished in Auschwitz. The couple's oldest son, Adolf, was liberated in Buchenwald. One month after the end of the war, in June 1945, Adolf Stern made his way to the Generali office in Prague to claim his family's life and annuity insurance proceeds.

His reception by the insurance company's officials, as described in an affidavit, was "less than kind. They mocked me. They were arrogant. They stated that I would have to produce a death certificate and copies of the relevant insurance policies before they would process the claims.

"I explained that Hitler did not pass out death certificates and that all family insurance policy documentation was confiscated by the Third Reich. They declined my request to retrieve from Generali's own files the insurance and annuity policies that they sold to my family. The officials said that Generali could not help me and they had me forcibly removed from the premises by a security guard. I was humiliated."

Over the following five decades, Moshe Stern's surviving children and his grandchildren on three continents repeatedly petitioned Generali. Allegedly, they were constantly rebuffed with claims that no records of the policies could be found, that the assets of Generali's Prague branch had been nationalized and that the time limit for claims had expired.

Then, in 1996, by a fluke, the Sterns found in a large Generali warehouse in Trieste a copy of one policy issued to Moshe Stern in 1929. A few months earlier, Generali had affirmed that no such policy existed.

At the news conference, Alan Stern, a Los Angeles businessman and grandson of Moshe Stern, and his wife, Lisa, an attorney, described their family's long legal odyssey, which he termed a battle of "David fighting a corporate Goliath."

Lisa Stern, holding up a piece of stone from an Auschwitz crematorium, described Generali's actions as "the financial crime of the century."

Alan Stern's aunt, Anne Stern, herself a survivor of Theresienstadt, pleaded in a tear-choked voice that "We cannot wait any longer, we beg all of you to help so that justice may be done."

Their attorney, William M. Shernoff, a well-known expert on insurance consumer rights, said the present suit, in which he is seeking $10 million in actual damages and $125 million in punitive damages, "is one of the most abusive in my 25 years of practice." He also believes that the case represents the largest "bad faith" suit filed against any insurance company.

Shernoff said that because of the age and physical condition of some of the plaintiffs, a hearing in the suit could be accelerated under California law. He hopes a trial date will be set within four months and the case submitted to a jury within one year.

Generali spokesman Leonard said the company had not received a copy of the Stern suit and he could therefore not comment on it.

Generali, whose net worth is put at $4.3 billion, has a long history of involvement with the Jewish community and Israel. It was founded in 1831 by a group of Jewish merchants in Trieste and quickly established branches in the major cities of the old Hapsburg Empire.

It employed thousands of Jewish agents and, according to Quackenbush, wrote 80 percent of all policies taken out by Jews in Central and Eastern Europe.

In the 1930s, Generali helped found Migdal, now the largest insurance company in Israel, and last year paid $320 million to buy a controlling interest in Migdal. According to Alan Stern, Generali's chairman of the board is Jewish.

At the time of the Migdal takeover, Generali announced establishment of a $12 million philanthropic fund, "in honor of Generali policy-holders who perished in the Holocaust." The company publicized the fund through large ads in Jewish newspapers and also established an information center for claimants.

However, speakers at the news conference observed that even this gesture is suspect. For one thing, said Alan Stern, the only money disbursed so far has been $1 million for advertisements.

In addition, attorney Shernoff stated in his brief, in making future disbursements from the fund, Generali specifically denies any legal or moral obligation to do so and requires recipients to forego any future claims against the company.

In the separate class action suit pending in New York, Generali is among 15 German, Swiss, French and Italian insurance companies named. One of the largest is the German firm, Allianz AG.

Most of the companies have operations and subsidiaries in the United States and thus may be subject to American courts. Rene Siemens, a lead attorney in the case, said he thinks that ultimately, claims against European insurance companies may run into the billions of dollars and far exceed the claims of holders of dormant accounts in Swiss banks.

In a related development, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported this week that a Holocaust Victims Insurance Act has been introduced in Congress. The act would require European insurance companies to give a full accounting of policies taken out by Holocaust victims and survivors and mandate payments to their heirs.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent