Holocaust heirs fight `resistance' over reparations

Insurance: A commission established to settle policy claims by relatives of Nazi victims has faltered in the latest attempt to end a painful half-century stalemate.

February 03, 2002|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Before the Nazis sent them off to their deaths, Alfred and Meta Meyerstein did their best to provide for their 18-year-old son, Ralph, who had managed to escape Germany for safety in England.

In the 1920s, Alfred Meyerstein had taken out two life insurance policies with Allianz, then and now Germany's largest insurer. His wife wrote to their son in 1939 to make sure he knew they were keeping up on payments for the policies.

But more than a half-century later, Ralph Meyerstein, now 81 and living in Baltimore County, has yet to see a penny of the insurance money - despite persistent efforts to collect.

"They want for all of us to die, and they bury the claims with us," Meyerstein said.

Now, Meyerstein's hopes for a settlement rest with a private, voluntary international commission created three years ago by U.S. regulators, European insurers and Jewish groups. The panel's goal is to resolve claims and see that survivors receive any proceeds due from insurance policies.

But records and interviews show that the commission has fallen far short of that goal.

Fewer than 1 percent of the 77,800 claims submitted to the panel, known as the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, or ICHEIC, have led to settlements.

And while the commission has spent $40 million on administrative expenses, its efforts as of last fall had resulted in just 758 settlement offers and only about $12 million in claims payments, according to the panel's records.

State insurance regulators say 412 Marylanders have filed claims with ICHEIC, but no information is available on how many, if any, have received settlements.

Even some of those who worked to create the commission now consider it an abysmal failure.

"This is a scandal, the way the survivors have been handled," said Deborah Senn, Washington state's former insurance commissioner and a key player in ICHEIC's founding. "It's a disgrace."

The commission's poor track record, critics say, is due in large part to stonewalling by European insurance companies. The companies agreed to participate in the process but have not been willing to open their files and release comprehensive lists of people who held policies from 1930 to 1945.

Such lists are important because many heirs were children during the Holocaust and do not know whether their parents had insurance. With access to insurance company files, the heirs - or heirs' descendants - could find out if they are owed money.

"The whole issue of names ... is enormous," said Bobby Brown, Israel's representative on the commission.

But representatives of the European insurance companies on the commission have fought the release of name lists - pointing to privacy laws, the costs of researching and compiling names, and other concerns.

As Senn sees it, the insurers fear that publishing the names of policyholders would increase their exposure. "It serves the purposes of the insurers to resist publication of names which would inevitably expand the number of claimants," she wrote in a December 31, 2000, status report on ICHEIC's efforts. "In short, if you suppress the names, you suppress the claims."

The commission's failure to resolve the impasse on name lists and other key issues has proven especially embarrassing to its well-respected chairman, former Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger.

In November, he was castigated by a congressional committee upset about the sluggish pace of claims payments. And at a recent commission meeting in Washington, he became so frustrated by internal feuding that he abruptly quit - albeit briefly - in disgust.

Eagleburger, 71, was persuaded the next day to rescind his resignation from his $350,000-a-year post as chairman, after he was promised broader decision-making authority.

Eagleburger did not respond last week to telephone messages and a written request from The Sun for an interview. However, he acknowledged to the congressional committee in November that the commission's work has "taken too long and it's cost too much," blaming the problems largely on the insurance companies.

Eagleburger's frustrations boiled over at ICHEIC's most recent meeting, held Jan. 22 at the Westin Fairfax Hotel in Washington. Two sources present say he told the group he saw little chance of feuding commission members ever resolving their differences.

"He said he could no longer be a party to it," one of the participants recalled. "He definitely said he was resigning. Someone called out, `Mr. Chairman,' and he said, `You don't have a chairman anymore.'"

The commission's poor performance angers many, including Israel Arbeiter of Newton, Mass. He survived Auschwitz but lost his parents and a brother to the Nazi terror.

"This is outrageous, to spend $40 million to collect that small an amount," Arbeiter said. "If they can't do the job, they should get out of the way and let somebody else do it, not sit back in their offices and get high salaries."

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