Two state bills bring measure of justice to survivors

A bill to help Holocaust survivors collect unpaid insurance claims sat on Gov. Pete Wilson's desk unsigned.

That made members of the Jewish community nervous.

"We had heard there was some quiet opposition and thought a phone call might be helpful," said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

Kahn contacted William Lowenberg, a San Francisco Holocaust survivor and Republican activist, who in turn picked up the phone and urged Wilson to sign the bill.

"I think that phone call played a very important role," Kahn said.

Tuesday of last week, with Jewish community leaders standing by his side, Wilson signed SB 1530, authored by state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles). The bill appropriates $4 million to the California Department of Insurance to assist Holocaust survivors in collecting unpaid World War II-era insurance claims

An estimated 18,000 to 20,000 Holocaust survivors live in California, in addition to families of thousands of Holocaust victims. Officials don't know how many of those have policies or are potential beneficiaries.

Wilson also signed another bill, SB 1397, which allows a gross income exemption for amounts received by Holocaust survivors, their heirs or beneficiaries, as a result of a settlement of claims for any "recovered asset."

Under the terms of this bill, authored by state Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), survivors compensated for the loss of their bank deposits, insurance proceeds, artwork or other assets will not have to pay state income taxes on the value of those assets or on the interest earned.

"On this day, Yom Kippur Eve, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, I am proud to sign two important bills to help right at least some small measure of the tragic evil of the Holocaust," Wilson said.

"Of course, nothing can atone for the magnitude and depravity of the Holocaust…But something can be done for the survivors and their families."

Lowenberg, who attended the bill-signing ceremony along with other Jewish leaders, calls the bills, which go into effect Jan. 1, "landmark legislation which has not been done nationally or internationally."

Others in attendance at the bill-signing included Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Ozzie Goren, chairman of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation Holocaust Museum.

Meanwhile, Wilson vetoed a third bill, AB 1715, strongly opposed by insurance companies, that would have forced them to make public the names of all European policy-holders who probably perished during the Holocaust.

The measure would have required specified insurance companies to reveal within six months the names of all European policy-holders from 1920 to 1945, or lose their California operating licenses.

In addition, insurers would have had to check the names of their policy-holders and beneficiaries against the names of all known Holocaust victims, provided by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles), who authored the measure, angrily assailed the governor, saying the veto allowed insurance companies to keep money stolen from Holocaust victims.

But Lowenberg said he fully accepts Wilson's veto. AB 1715, he said, would have amounted to lengthy information gathering without offering solutions.

"It wasn't going to work," he said. "It did not have the oomph or pull in it."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

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