Insurance firms set up Holocaust claim fund

LONDON — Six European insurers have agreed to deposit a total of $90 million in an escrow account as proof of their intent to settle claims by Holocaust victims and their heirs.

The decision to establish the fund — with $30 million to be paid within the coming weeks and the remaining $60 million by June 1999 — came during a marathon 10-hour meeting last week in London of the newly established International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.

Elan Steinberg, the World Jewish Congress' executive director, called the insurers' decision to create the fund a "historic achievement to the credit of the insurance companies."

Former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who heads the commission, listed the six insurers as Assicurazioni Generali of Italy; Germany's leading insurer, Allianz Holding; France's AXA Group; and the Winterthur, Zurich and Basel insurance firms in Switzerland.

The commission — which was created as the result of a memorandum of agreement signed in August — includes representatives from the European insurers, the U.S. National Association of Insurance Commissioners, European insurance regulators and the WJC, as well as an Israeli official.

In a series of hearings conducted by U.S. state insurance regulators earlier this year, numerous witnesses charged that European insurance companies have been stalling for 50 years to avoid payment on policies taken out by Jews in prewar years.

Based on preliminary assessments of the unpaid policies, the WJC has put their value at between $2 billion and $2.5 billion in today's currency — 10 times their value in postwar dollars.

Bobby Brown, diaspora affairs adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli representative on the commission, said Generali alone had issued 327,000 policies between 1918 and 1945. Some 100,000 of these — not necessarily all belonging to Holocaust victims — have not been paid out.

Chairing his first meeting of the international commission, Eagleburger pledged to try to complete the work of settling claims before a prescribed two-year time limit.

He also volunteered to travel to various former Soviet-bloc states in an attempt to persuade governments and companies that may have responsibility for claims by Holocaust victims to "join the process."

Speaking to reporters after the commission met, Eagleburger was adamant that the $90 million fund did not represent "a cap, a limit or a precedent for dealing with future claims."

The decision by the insurance companies to establish the fund, he stressed, was "a demonstration that they are prepared to deal seriously with the issue."

At the same time, however, Eagleburger said he had no idea how the $90 million would be spent.

"That will be dealt with by the commission in the coming weeks and months," he said.

In addition to creating the fund, the insurance companies agreed to pay the operating costs of the commission's first year, which is estimated at some $10 million.

Eagleburger announced that five working groups, whose members will be named by the commission, had been established during the London conference.

These groups will include:

*An audit review committee that will ensure the companies produce a comprehensive list of unpaid policies.

*A claims resolution committee that will assess the validity of claims and, if necessary, establish an appeals procedure.

*A public access committee to publicize the list of claimants.

*A historical committee that will examine the background to the claims commission.

*A budget working group that will oversee the commission's expenditures.

The commission, which will set up offices in Washington and London, is planning a claims outreach program, including a toll-free number to provide information to potential claimants.