Shoah a systematic robber, insurance official says in S.F.

Since the spring of 1997, Deborah Senn, Washington state's insurance commissioner, has been fighting to recover insurance claims for Shoah survivors and their heirs.

Senn is Jewish, but to her knowledge, no family members were killed in the Shoah.

However, last summer she took a trip to Belarus to research her father's family, the Semenovskys and Gerchikovs. Reading lists of Jews killed in the Shoah, she saw the names Semenovsky and Gerchikov again and again.

"In a town that had over 1,000 Jews at the turn of the century, you see my family name over and over again," she said by phone from Olympia, Wash.. "Some of them have got to be related."

Senn was in San Francisco last week to give a speech on "The Pursuit of Justice — Investigating the 50-Year-Old Claims of Holocaust Survivors and Heirs." Her speech was part of a conference sponsored by the Anderson Kill and Olick law firm and held at the Pan Pacific Hotel.

Regarding the Shoah claims, Senn said, "There isn't any Jewish community in the world that is untouched by the Holocaust."

She was joined by Terrell Hunt of Risk International. Hunt, a leading "archaeologist" of Holocaust-era documents who works closely with Senn, said, "The documents are there. Incredibly, after all these years, they're there." But finding them, he added, is not easy.

Many of the liable insurance companies have American subsidiaries, said Senn. She pointed out that Allianz owns Fireman's Fund, Assicurazioni Generali owns Business Men's Assurance of America, Winterthur Leben owns Unigard Insurance and Zurich just acquired Farmer's Insurance.

Though they can still be held liable, it's a less direct process, she said.

Senn first got involved with the Holocaust-claims issue after reading in a small insurance trade magazine about a lawsuit filed by Anderson Kill and Olick, on behalf of Shoah survivors.

Senn then became chair of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners' Holocaust Insurance Issues Working Group.

While life insurance claims were the most common, many European Jews also had dowry insurance, annuity accounts set up for daughters in anticipation of their wedding expenses.

In addition, Jews whose businesses were destroyed on Kristallnacht were also cheated out of insurance claims, she said.

Hearings were held around the country "to shine the sun on the situation," she added. "You could literally hear a pin drop when survivors told their stories. You'd hear stories like, `My mother didn't buy fish on Sabbath so she could pay for the insurance policy. '

"Some people were thrown out of [insurance offices]. Some were told they needed death certificates.

"Last we heard," she added, "the death camps were not handing out death certificates."

Generali, an Italian insurance company, was known as the "shtetl insurer" because its agents went door to door throughout Eastern Europe. Generali claims it is no longer liable for claims nationalized under communism, according to Senn. She disagrees.

"They were nationalized after the obligation arose."

She estimated that millions of people were affected by unpaid Holocaust-era claims, adding that Allianz, a German company, has only paid 17 such claims.

"The Shoah was the greatest murder but also the greatest systematic robbery," she said.

Late last month, a commission charged with resolving the insurance claims was formed in New York City.

Its 13 members include Chuck Quackenbush, California insurance commissioner, and representatives of six European insurance companies: Allianz, AG, Axa, Generali, Zurich, Basler Leben and Winterthur Leben. Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger is chair.

Prior to her talk here, Senn reflected on her genealogical search in an article for Avoteynu.

"Hitler and the Nazis tried to break the chain of Jewish family connections and Jewish history," she wrote. "The work we are doing and will do to reconstruct our histories will defeat them."