Analysis: Nazi insurers in the frame

An online research venture is reviving the claims of Holocaust victims.
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The Independent Online
Sara Schreiber left her home in Vienna in June 1939. She never saw her mother or father again. Hers was a story familiar to thousands of European Jews who, thanks to the Kindertransport scheme undertaken by British welfare groups, were evacuated to safety shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Their lives were saved, but relatives left behind were not so fortunate. Whole chunks of family histories were destroyed when personal belongings were confiscated and houses vandalised and destroyed during the Nazi reign of terror.

Almost 60 years later, in January 1998, a Gestapo document was discovered in a library in Houston, Texas. The document ordered the confiscation of the life insurance policy of Salomon Koerner, an Austrian Jew. This discovery provided the proof of what so many had suspected: that German insurance companies transferred money from insurance policies held by Jews to the Nazis.

The importance of this discovery was furthered by an attempt to dispute its significance by Emilio Galli-Zugaro, a spokesperson for Allianz, the German insurance company involved. His acknowledgement that there were thousands of similar documents revived efforts to discover the missing assets of Holocaust victims.

Any hopes that Holocaust victims and survivors would be able to recover assets had faded as claim after claim was rejected. The barriers that they faced included terms of contract that denied claims unless documentation, such as a death certificate, was provided. The collapse of the Reich Mark at the end of the war confused the issue of value, with many insurance companies claiming that the policies were worthless. The Jewish community settled into the belief that these assets had gone for good.

Since the discovery of the Koerner document, Risk International, a US insurance archaeology and claim recovery firm; Avotaynu, a Jewish genealogy publishing service; and, a family history internet and publishing company, have combined forces. The joint venture, Living Heirs, aims to identify ancestors with documented assets.

The search for documentary evidence moved from the US to Europe. Archives in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Russia are being painstakingly combed for missing documents of some of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. The task of the researchers is hampered by the difficulty of obtaining access to archives and the absence of indexes.

Moscow was an obvious place to look because the Russians were the first of the Allies into Berlin following the cessation of hostilities in 1945. They were ordered to collect thousands of documents generated by Nazi government agencies, and take them to Moscow. Among the offices that were searched were those which dealt with insurance.

A key breakthrough came in February last year, in Moscow. On the shelves of files at the OSOBYI Archives, Doug Tally, the vice-president and a senior researcher of Risk International, discovered an index in English and ordered to see the files. Unfortunately, none of these contained anything relevant. Not understanding Russian, he said knowing which shelf to start looking on was a pure guess. There were, however, some files from the Economic Ministry out on another table - as good a place to start as any. Quite amazingly, there was a reference to the Jewish question. On closer inspection, these files contained documents relating to insurance. By chance Mr Tally had stumbled on information that would prove vital.

The Moscow discoveries provided further proof of the Nazi actions. In addition, they were evidence of collusion between the government and the insurance companies.

The Kristallnacht, or "Night of Broken Glass" between 8 and 10 November 1938, was an organised campaign of terror in which Nazi gangs destroyed hundreds of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues.

On 12 November, Hermann Goering issued the "Kristallnacht Order", which authorised the confiscation of insurance proceeds of German Jews for damages arising from Kristallnacht. Compensation claims were effectively nullified. A number of life insurance and health insurance companies decided that all Jewish insurance benefits should be denied or confiscated.

"It was the insurance companies themselves that ex- panded the plan to deny Jews proceeds from virtually every insurance category, including health, life, funeral and annuities," says Terrell Hunt, the president of Risk International.

The insurance companies involved in the confiscated assets include Allianz, Winterhur Group, AXA, Zurich and Assiscurazioni Generali. They have all put their names to a memorandum of understanding that created the International Commission on Holo- caust Era Insurance. One of the jobs of the commission is to establish a formula by which to calculate the value of assets.

Although many claims may not amount to huge sums, most Jewish families regarded insurance as an important way of preserving wealth and savings. "It was a cultural phenomenon of the European Jewish community to rely on insurance instead of the government to guarantee your well-being," said Mr Hunt. It was not unusual for the father of a family to have life insurance, retirement cover and a dowry annuity for his daughter.

Wealthy families would also insure art, jewellery, rare books and documents, making likely the prospect of some huge claims. This has been further highlighted by the recent discovery of 54,000 unclaimed Swiss bank accounts that may have belonged to Holocaust victims. Families rich enough to have a Swiss bank account would undoubtedly have had substantial insurance cover too.

The names of 50,000 Viennese Holocaust victims are now listed on the Living Heirs website, making it possible for their families to receive the registries detailing relatives' missing assets. The research is continuing, and Risk International has found 250,000 registries in Germany. It hopes to make between 300,000 and 350,000 names available on the site before long.

According to Mr Hunt, not every family will choose to pursue the compensation claim once the assets of relatives have been discovered.

"Sometimes the value won't warrant further action. Also, some families are not interested in the money. For them the asset registry is an important family heirloom.

"Recovering the missing documents is an important link in a family's history, and these are sometimes all they have to remind them of the relatives they have lost."

Mrs Schreiber has relatives among the 50,000 names on the Living Heirs list. Her maiden name appeared on the list, which has led to the discovery of her uncle's registry and the names of six other members of her family.

"It's very emotional to discover information about relatives you have lost, but at the same time it is nice to find the documents that have been hidden away and denied for so long," says Mrs Schreiber.

"I think other people should be aware that they too could discover missing parts of their family history."