More European firms join rush to compensate survivors, heirs

California Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush was part of the group that helped negotiate the deal.

The companies signing the memo this week included Germany's leading insurer, Allianz Holding; France's AXA Group; and the Winterthur and Basel insurance firms in Switzerland.

All of the companies are among 16 European insurers targeted in a $16 billion class-action lawsuit filed last year by Holocaust victims and their families, who alleged that the firms withheld, concealed or converted the proceeds of policies sold before World War II.

The memorandum, signed by the insurers in an effort to block the suit from going forward, calls for:

*Creating an international commission to probe the firms' archives for unpaid insurance claims.

*Establishing a claims resolution mechanism to settle the claims.

*Making immediate contributions by the firms to a fund from which the claims will be paid and to a second humanitarian fund, similar to one created last year in Switzerland, to help Holocaust victims.

The international commission will include 12 members — six representing the insurers and European regulators and six drawn from Jewish groups, according to Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. He said the commission will also have a chairperson independent of any of these groups.

Steinberg, who called Tuesday's signing a "major step toward justice," said the move is significant because it establishes a process for resolving survivors' claims.

"We can't simply settle" with the insurers, he said, because it is impossible at this point to know the exact value of the prewar policies involved in the claims.

But he pointed out that preliminary assessments of the policies were put at $2 billion to$2.5 billion in today's currency — 10 times their value in postwar dollars.

The insurers' decision to sign the memo was also prompted by mounting pressures from state insurance commissioners across the United States, who threatened to impose sanctions on the firms' U.S. subsidiaries if there were no resolution of Holocaust-era claims.

Earlier this month, Switzerland's two leading commercial banks agreed to a $1.25 billion settlement of claims dating from that era. Observers of the restitution process say that settlement also prompted the insurers to begin signing the memorandum of understanding.

The Swiss banks' settlement has also had major repercussions among German firms:

*Two of Germany's leading banks, Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank, have confirmed that they are negotiating with Jewish officials to reach a possible settlement. The banks face an $18 billion class-action lawsuit over allegations that they knowingly laundered gold and other valuables stripped from concentration camp victims.

*Germany's third-largest bank institution, Commerzbank, said it had appointed a panel of independent scholars to probe whether it profited from gold and jewelry looted from concentration camp victims or was withholding the proceeds of bank accounts from their rightful Jewish owners.

*The Bonn government suggested Tuesday that German companies could channel money into funds for Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe as a way of pre-empting lawsuits against them by former Jewish slave laborers and other groups. The suggestion that private German firms contribute to such a fund came days after Chancellor Helmut Kohl said the government would not participate. He noted that Germany has already paid more than $55.5 billion since the end of the war in various forms of Holocaust compensation.

*Two leading German firms recently announced their intention to make available substantial funds for former Nazi slave laborers. Volkswagen, Europe's largest car maker, said it would make its own payments to claimants. Daimler Benz, the Stuttgart-based industrial giant, said it would be willing to contribute to an already existent government fund for former slave laborers.

The idea of contributing to existing funds has been much discussed recently by German firms. Historical experts maintain that settlements with individuals would be difficult to reach because of a lack of specific evidence regarding where a former slave laborer had worked or for how long.