The Holocaust endures

July 14, 2002

`SUPPOSE YOUR family had a Holocaust era insurance policy and you just didn't know about it?"

So goes the offer that has enticed thousands of heirs of the victims of German World War II atrocities to apply to an international commission set up to finally pay off their life insurance claims -- potentially totaling tens of millions of dollars.

But as Sun reporter Greg Garland has found in two investigative reports, the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) is turning out to be a very cruel reminder that the horrors of history have an ugly way of persisting. Mr. Garland's reports in February and last Sunday show that in its three years of operation:

Under the most charitable of interpretations, ICHEIC has generated a little more than $20 million in settlement offers on 1,973 claims -- slightly more than 2 percent of the 85,739 claims filed. Hundreds of offers have not been accepted.

The commission has racked up $40 million in expenses, including hefty costs for first-class air travel and hotels, more than $17 million to process claims, and at least $1.5 million for inadequate accounting services by the personal business manager of ICHEIC's chairman, former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger.

European insurers funding ICHEIC, including some German companies that had close Nazi ties, have refused to publish complete lists of policy holders from 1930 to 1945; this would be the only way for many heirs to find out if their ancestors had policies. For every claim settlement offer, the insurers have turned down 30 others, including many believed to be valid.

The private voluntary commission, incorporated in Switzerland, has been thoroughly cloaked in secrecy, barring even Holocaust survivors and heirs from its meetings.

This scandalous record has abused once again tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors and heirs, many of whom have unsuccessfully sought for six decades the dignity that might come with proper compensation. Leo Rechter, an officer with two national holocaust survivor groups, rightfully calls the situation "morally and ethically repugnant."

ICHEIC is in need of immediate and deep reform. It must be run with much greater transparency, stop wasting money on lavish expenses that could go to claims or Jewish causes, force insurers to publish lists of policy-holders, and allow a greater role on its board for Holocaust survivors and heirs.

And if that does not happen, insurance commissioners in every state where these European companies operate through American affiliates ought to act aggressively to force them to finally honor their ICHEIC obligations. Illinois has taken some steps, but too few others have.

Last, this shameful state of affairs has arisen under the hand of Mr. Eagleburger. Because he is a former secretary of state, it is particularly disgraceful. If he can't make ICHEIC work properly, honoring policies more than 60 years old, he should leave the commission to more competent leadership.

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