Holocaust-Era Assets

National Archives Symposium on Records and Research Relating to Holocaust-Era Assets


Researching Unpaid and Unclaimed Holocaust-Era Insurance Policies
Documentary Evidence for Claims
National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland
Friday, December 4, 1998

Presentation by Catherine A. Lillie

 Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you about an aspect of the New York State Banking Department's Holocaust Claims Processing Office's work that is frequently underestimated -- the documentation we have the privilege of seeing and the research this necessitates both in Europe and the US.

As most of you already know, the HCPO, created through Governor Pataki's efforts, assists claimants with a vast array of claims: the majority still reference Swiss banks and European insurance companies. There are, however, an ever-increasing number of claimants filing claims for lost, looted or stolen art, as well as for assets deposited with European financial institutions, be they Austrian, British, Dutch, French, German, or Italian. As a result, the documentation we see is equally varied. Ranging from actual account documents to complete insurance policies, and everything in between. Most recently I have seen remarkable documents pertaining to Austrian, French, and Czech bank accounts.

Overall, the HCPO has handled more than 5,000 inquiries in the past year. Of these, 2,600 have been insurance-related inquiries from 22 countries and 43 states. These inquiries have generated 1,300 claims from 18 countries and 36 states. What started off as an additional service that we wanted to offer survivors and their heirs with banking claims has now turned out to represent half the work the office does on any given day. I hasten to point out, however, that while there are 1,300 claimants, this actually means that we have claims for more than 1,900 insured persons. The reason is simple: in many instances, individuals had taken out multiple policies. In other instances, the claimant may well be the sole survivor of a sizable family, the members of which were well-insured, or just insured. Either way, many of our cases refer to multiple policies.

Claims range from the purely anecdotal, through the detailed that are merely lacking the original paperwork, to the partially or even fully documented cases. For the most part we are dealing with life, dowry, and education policies, as well as the occasional annuity, property, fire, health and pension policies. Unlike the Swiss Bank cases that we have worked on (where only 10-15% of accountholders can be linked to a specific bank), almost 50% of the policyholders can be linked to an insurance company.

Claims currently filed with the HCPO reference just over 100 companies as identified by claimants. The HCPO is currently trying to determine how many successor companies are in fact involved -- it may be as few as two dozen. The most frequently cited companies remain Generali, Phönix, RAS, Victoria, Allianz, Anker, Basler, and Donau. But claimants have also identified Barmenia, Fonciere, Gerling, Hermes, Isar, Lloyds, Merkur, Nordstern, ÖVAG, Swiss Life, Star, and Vita, to name but a few. We have actual policy documents in every imaginable central European language, including the following: Anker policies in German and Bulgarian, Janus and Fonciere policies in Hungarian, Gisela-Verein policies in German, Victoria policies in Czech, RAS policies in Polish and German, and so on. The list is long and varied. We have policy numbers for many many more.

Those who cannot provide documentation do know significant details. What sorts of details are these? Claimants know there was insurance; they even recall purchasing it, and they remember perhaps the name of the agent and location. Some have memories of a fearful and frenzied attempt to bury their documents while in the ghetto -- the only available form of safekeeping. Unfortunately in many cases this desperate ruse failed. They remember accompanying parents to medical exams, or to photographers for dowry policy photographs. We have claimants who accompanied their father, an insurance salesman, on sales trips.

Given the very special group of people we serve, we have devoted a lot of time and energy to listening very carefully. Often, the details that may lead us to connect the insured to the company that wrote the policy are not apparent in the information supplied on the claim form the HCPO uses. Extensive follow-up conversations frequently, however, reveal a degree of detail that emerges in the retelling of highly traumatic events. Details such as the piggy-bank that a claimant received when his father purchased his policy -- it was red and domed, and German. The claimant can even place the logo on it. Unfortunately, the one detail that is missing is an accurate description of that logo. But I am hopeful that one day a claimant will walk in, lamenting the loss of the paper policy but proffering a red, domed piggy-bank as proof instead.

Listening carefully has taken us very far. We have been able to place families more accurately in terms of both time and geographical location. This, in turn, helps us determine which insurance company may in fact have written the policy in question. Documentation, and by this I mean actual paper documentation, where it exists is no less vivid. There are, of course, the handwritten lists kept by families that itemized their assets. These lists have received much publicity in the course of the past year. They are by no means all that has survived. Some of our claimants have pre-war and wartime confirmation letters from insurance companies referencing policy numbers and policies. In some cases we have seen postwar confirmation of the existence of policies, more often than not followed by a refusal to pay. The reasons have been varied: either claims were lodged too early, before a claims process had been established; or they were lodged too late, after the application period had expired. Or there was clarification, to the effect that the policies in question had been paid. The burning question that remains, of course, is who received the proceeds. It is at this juncture that archival research has been crucial.

In our Swiss bank research, we were guided initially by the documents declassified in the NARA that gave us background on the accounts held by the New York agencies of Swiss financial institutions doing business in New York. That, as well as the documentation provided by claimants, which was frequently little more than fragmentary. There was plenty of anecdotal information, letters that contained a passing mention of a trip to Switzerland to safeguard savings, or similar memories of a piggy-bank. Occasionally there were actual bank records: deposit slips, custodial account agreements, account statements or correspondence. And in one instance I clearly remember the documents relating to the Nazi seizure of a business account in the course of Aryanisation. The banks in turn have provided account documents retrieved from microfilm records. We also have results of the Volcker audit in Switzerland, but these too are often fragmentary.

European insurance policy claims provide a very striking difference. For a start, claimants have significantly more documentation. The reasons are obvious but bear repeating. Insurance was commonplace. It was purchased openly, it was a priority to parents who wanted to secure an education for their son, a dowry for their daughter, or simply a financially secure retirement in an era when there were few pension plans. Given the widespread nature of insurance and the fact that there was no need to be clandestine about it, information was more plentiful to begin with; it has therefore also been more likely to survive.

There are of course the usual anecdotal items: letters with passing mention of policies purchased, or handwritten lists of policy numbers on scraps of paper that have miraculously survived. Similarly, there are the usual surprises. While totally useless in terms of supporting the claim, these are quite memorable, such as the postcards sent home from Dachau or Auschwitz confirming news or food received, and invariably conveying thanks while simultaneously pleading for more. But unlike the Swiss bank documents there are also a staggering number of insurance records: policies, premium receipts, and correspondence with the companies, both pre- and post-war. In other words, claimants can frequently document not only the existence of the policy they are claiming, but they can also document the reasons for purchasing it, or their attempts to trace the asset after the war.

These documents are impressive for a variety of reasons. Their importance is not merely that they prove the existence of a particular asset. In many cases they also provide the last remaining link to a world that has since been lost. For the sole surviving daughter, the dowry policy her parents purchased for her is often the only link that remains to the world, the people and the time in which she grew up. It carries much more than just the weight of evidence. It is hugely charged with emotion. Denying its value can amount to denying the existence and value of a world that is now lost and the people who perished.

In many instances the information that we have been able to locate helps us trace families and their fate. The difference here is that, in addition to the stories we are all familiar with -- the forced surrender of assets, the forcible relocation, the deportations, and all other aspects of gradual dehumanization -- these documents record a more insidious loss of dignity. In some cases it is a gradual, and in some cases it is a rapid disenfranchisement in economic terms that can be traced quite clearly through the files. More often than not, the purchase of the policy in the late 1920s and early 1930s is followed by a harried struggle to maintain adequate premium payments. With the boycott of Jewish businesses taking increasing hold in Germany and Austria, it often became virtually impossible for policyholders to maintain regular premium payment schedules. In Eastern Europe the same is true, except that the trajectory was much shorter.

Documents from the period reflect a variety of ways in which individual policyholders dealt with this situation. In an increasingly unstable political environment, some chose to repurchase their policies, cutting their losses and applying the proceeds to their ever more frantic emigration attempts, or to the next few months' rent. Others followed their insurers' suggestions, either taking out loans against the policies, or converting them to fully paid up policies at a lesser value. After the many forcible currency conversions in the 1930s, one more conversion probably appeared par for the course. In some instances we can document this through the amendments to the Vermögensverzeichnis (list of assets) that policyholders filed. In other cases this is revealed by the Wiedergutmachung (reparation) files, which contain documents the insurance companies submitted post-after the war to illustrate that they no longer had any obligation to the policyholder.

Let me try and illustrate this more clearly with a few concrete examples. In hindsight, this first example may strike us as the story of a particularly stubborn policyholder. But hindsight is treacherous terrain. Extensive correspondence from Basler's head office to the policyholder in New York has survived. The policyholder's responses have unfortunately been lost. None the less, these documents present an interesting approach. Essentially, the company offered to restructure the policy, to try and retain some of the original underlying value without totally flying in the face of Nazi legislation. They suggested that the policy be stripped into two parts, the smaller to remain in Germany, and therefore subject to German foreign currency exchange legislation, and the larger part to be moved to Switzerland, payable in Swiss francs and thus freely available. The policyholder appears to have rejected this option. Unfortunately, given the fragmentary paper trail, we will never know why. The result: payment of proceeds into a blocked account in Berlin, ultimately in the Soviet Sector. The rest, as they say, is history.

Each story is exceptional; each is different. And yet none of them is isolated. There is the Basler Leben 100,000 Goldmarks life insurance policy purchased by a company in Cologne to cover one of its senior managers. In the mid-1930s the company ceded the policy to him and continued premium payments. With successful flight from Germany, however, the insured lost his policy -- the Gestapo seized it in 1940, and Basler surrendered the cash value to the German authorities. When the insured, who survived, tried to reclaim his policy immediately after the war, he was told that the company had no obligation; payment had been made. Instead he was referred to the German state. In this case we are still trying to determine whether restitution was made after the war. The fact that it was a German policy written on a German national gives grounds for hope -- either that payment was in fact made at the time, or should policies have been overlooked we will be able to show that conclusively, and argue that payment remains due.

Other claimants have similar tales to tell of extensive documentation yet unresponsive governments. For example, one of our claimants was able to save every scrap of paper, from her early years in Prague through the horrors of Theresienstadt. She had managed to retain documents I had only ever heard of but never actually seen -- receipts for every single item of clothing surrendered to the Nazi authorities, two wool coats, a fur coat, socks, scarves and hats. Even a receipt for her dog. In amongst this vast collection of paper are three life insurance policies written by Victoria, purchased in US dollars before the war. She has her policies, her premium receipts, and the official letters from the Czech post-war government refusing payment. Yet, she has still not given up hope. Moreover, we have heard that in Czechoslovakia the Gestapo did not necessarily seize the policy document; they preferred to requisition the asset directly from the company instead. Obviously, whatever files have survived in Czech archives are of crucial importance.

This brings me to the other type of documentation that is frequently available, although this may be the first time in 40 years that it has been put to such extensive use. It is equally charged emotionally, albeit in a very different manner. I refer here to the Nazi paper trail. We have seen countless documents that trace the seizure of policies by the Gestapo, the Regional Finance Offices, or other branches of the Nazi bureaucracy in Germany and Austria. As a matter of course for any claimant originally from Vienna, the HCPO requests the Vermögensverzeichnis (list of assets) filed with the Viennese Nazi authorities. These files are relatively accessible and can be very educational. We have been able to confirm which insurance companies wrote policies for which claimants. We have also been able to exonerate insurance companies falsely suspected by claimants. Similarly, we have been able to verify policy numbers in this way. But most frequently, these disclosure forms serve to enlighten us about the gradual seizure of all manner of assets.

Documentation that the insurance companies have been able to provide has also been interesting, albeit often fragmentary. Here, too, we have been able to determine with some degree of certainty original policy numbers. The Generali archives in Italy are a splendid example of what can be found -- cover sheets for thousands of policies, providing at the very least a starting point for many claimants. Austria Collegialität, the successor to ÖVAG, in turn the successor to Phönix's Austrian portfolio, was able to locate payment records in surviving card catalogues, although these are often fragmentary and therefore frustrating. As a brief aside, successor company research has taken up a considerable amount of our time at the HCPO. Tracing portfolios through the 1930s and 1940s and subsequent nationalization programs should not be underestimated. Lastly, there are, of course, Wiedergutmachung (reparation/restitution) files, which often hold the answer to a claimant's inquiry. It cannot be said too often, many policies were in fact paid out in the 1950s and 1960s.

But what has been most interesting is what has not been located. Many companies, not just Austria Collegialität, have been able to provide payment amounts and dates -- but they cannot tell us who received the payment. We are therefore seeking to complete the puzzle by delving into the various archival resources in Europe.

In cases where payment was made by the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1950s and 1960s, it has been possible to verify that these payments were made under BEG guidelines. Claimants, while astonished at the conversion formulae applied at the time, have for the most part accepted these proceedings. The fact that the files are not held at a central location and are of course not open to the public has on occasion made the search for particular files tricky, but no more than that.

In Austria, the situation is a little different. We have had great success in tracing policy numbers through the archival holdings at the Staatsarchiv. The files of the Nationalsozialistische Vermögensverkehrsstelle not only appear to be fairly complete, they have been made more accessible through the finding aid, Recht als Unrecht, published by the archive a few years ago. Not that the finding aid covers the entire holdings. On the contrary, I am sure that we have missed many a useful file because there isn't a finding aid to cover them. Furthermore, we are thousands of miles away, groping in the semi-dark. But the appealing feature here is that we do have a good starting point. Claimants who can provide a name and a date of birth or an address in Vienna can usually be located one way or another in the finding aid. From there, their files can be requested, and we have a foundation upon which to build. Asset listings are often remarkably complete covering both movable and immovable assets. Fear (or is it merely the Central European desire for orderly and complete information?) is clearly palpable between the lines, e.g. one declaration contained the following note, added almost as an afterthought:

"Diverse Teppiche im Gesamtwert von RM 1300; zwei alte Damenpelze, die ich vorsichtshalber hier angebe, wiewohl sie zum persönlichen Gebrauch bestimmte bewegliche Gegenstände sind."

As far as I am concerned, however, one of the most striking discoveries did not emerge from an archive in Central European. On the contrary, the document in question was unearthed in this very building. Record Group 84, the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, contains a letter requesting help from the US Embassy in Vienna, in an insurance matter. Dated February 1947 it goes a long way to illustrating that this is hardly a new issue. Permit me to quote:

"Gentlemen, as an American Citizen I am writing to you for help. I lived in Austria and in the Czechoslovakia until 1938 and had a live insurance with the Assecurancia Generaly in Vienna. For this insurance I have to get now my money. I would be very glad if you could tell me to whom I have to write. Thanking you for all your courtesy and hoping for a favorable reply, I am sincerely yours, Dr. Lobstein.[sic]"

The letter no doubt sounds familiar to many of you here in this room. Some of you may have heard me mention it in the past. But it will be eerily familiar to those of you who have had any contact with individual claimants. You know from your own experience that we continue to receive these sorts of letters daily, more than half a century later. It is of paramount importance that we now reach a rapid and satisfactory conclusion to these claims. Ultimately, all of us who work extensively with individual claimants are the guardians of a wealth of information. A remarkable group of individuals have entrust us with their memories, the painful recollections of the last generation of eyewitnesses, together with the documentary evidence they managed to rescue. We would be doing everyone a disservice were we merely to consider historical facts and actuarial figures without continued reference to the survivors and their heirs as long as they are still with us.

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