WASHINGTON — An international commission charged with resolving Holocaust-era insurance claims is coming under attack from California politicians and segments of the Jewish community.
Holocaust survivors are suing the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims over allegedly delayed payments. The suit has been joined by the California state insurance commissioner, John Garamendi, a member of the commission; Garamendi has called for the resignation of the commission’s chairman, former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger.
Meanwhile, the United Jewish Communities, the national roof body of Jewish welfare federations, is supporting congressional bills that commission officials say will slow payments to survivors. The UJC is encouraging federations to lobby for legislation that would require insurance companies operating in the United States to publicize a registry of all Holocaust-era insurance policies. Eagleburger decried the bills during a House committee meeting last month, saying a broad registry with every name listed could slow down the claims process.
One such bill, the Holocaust Victims Insurance Relief Act, was introduced by Representative Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California and an outspoken foe of the international insurance commission. The measure has 59 co-sponsors.
In their lawsuit against the commission, survivors Jack Brauns, Manny Steinberg and Si Frumkin — all Los Angeles area residents — charged that the commission improperly delayed or denied payments totaling more than $1 billion on policies held by the survivors or heirs of those who perished under Nazi rule.
They also are seeking Eagleburger’s resignation, saying his salary — which they estimate at over $300,000 — is paid for by the insurance companies. The plaintiffs believe Eagleburger is working in the insurance companies’ interests.
“This is blood money stolen from survivors,” said Frumkin, chair of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jewry.
For his part, Eagleburger says he has no intention of resigning. His aide, Anais Haase, said that time and resources planned for investigating claims would be diverted to defending against the lawsuit if the survivors persist in fighting them.
“We don’t believe we are mistreating survivors or their heirs,” Haase said. “We offer the only option available at no cost to survivors and their heirs.”
The plaintiffs are asking the commission to place more pressure on the Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali to divulge more unpaid life insurance policies. The commission has published 9,000 names of Generali policyholders, but the claimants suggest that the list could exceed 100,000 policies.
A Generali official in New York called the lawsuit baseless and misleading, saying that thousands of claimants “have and will continue to be paid and offered generous amounts through the commission, which is supported by leading Jewish Holocaust restitution organizations and the State of Israel.”
Stuart Eizenstat, a special representative for Holocaust issues in the Clinton administration, said the lawsuits could wreck the commission’s system if the suit nullifies the agreements the commission has reached with the insurance agencies.
“It continues to cast a cloud of debate over the exercise,” he said. “It diverts energy and attention from filing claims.”
Eizenstat said he appreciates that the suit is an expression of frustration over the slow process of paying claims, but he contended that insurance companies, not the commission, have made the process more difficult by withholding names.
Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, agreed.
“There is no bad faith here,” he said of the commission. “There is bad information after 50 years.”
Singer acknowledged that the organization has had trouble completing its mission.
The commission, founded in 1998 by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, has had some problems in the last two years. The commission has been criticized for spending $56 million in five years.
California Governor Gray Davis issued a statement Saturday accusing the commission of “not meeting its mission.”