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Committee on Financial Services

United States House of Representatives

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OPENING STATEMENT OF M. SCOTT VAYER
REPRESENTATIVE OF ASSICURAZIONI GENERALI

BEFORE THE
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
COMMITTEE ON BANKING AND FINANCIAL SERVICES

WASHINGTON, DC
FEBRUARY, 12 1998

 

I would like to thank you, Chairman Leach and ranking Member Gonzalez, for allowing me to testify on behalf of Assicurazioni Generali of Trieste, Italy. My name is Scott Vayer, and I am lead Counsel for Generali in the United States. I have a prepared statement I would like to read which references several exhibits, of which you should all have copies. I will also provide my full testimony and exhibits for the record.

I would like to begin by providing you with a thumbnail sketch of who Generali is—and who it is not. Assicurazioni Generali is one of the largest insurers in Europe and conducts business in the United States, Latin America and Asia. It is a company that is respected worldwide for its professionalism and responsibility.

Generali has had a long and close affiliation with the Jewish people, which is reflected in the company’s history. Generali was established in 1831 by a group of Jewish merchants in Trieste, Italy, which at the time was part of the Hapsburg Empire. In the 1930s, as part of its worldwide operations, Generali founded the Migdal Insurance Company in Jewish Palestine.

The company’s future is as closely linked with the Jewish people as its past. Just this past year, Generali increased its interest in Migdal by making the largest non-leveraged foreign investment ever in an Israeli financial institution in the amount of $320 million. Today Generali, through Migdal, is the leading insurer in the Jewish State.

And let there be no doubt that the issue we are discussing today is very close to the heart of Generali’s most senior management, as you can well understand as Generali’s Board Chairman, Antoine Bernheim, is himself a survivor of Auschwitz, losing both of his parents in concentration camps during World War II. Neither he nor Generali takes any aspect of these matters lightly.

Without doubt, the issue before you today is an important one. There is no question that some people have insurance policies that to this day have not been paid. The issue before this committee is why those policies have not been paid. Clearly, these are not solely issues of insurance law. Nor, with respect to Generali, is it an issue concerning the treatment of Jews or the Holocaust. On the contrary, at the heart of this matter is nothing less than the devastation that was wrought throughout Europe by World War II and the Communist takeovers in the aftermath of the war—the destruction not only of lives, but also of property, of currencies, of businesses, of whole economic systems.

We have heard many disturbing accounts of the actions of the Nazis and even some insurance companies with regard to strong-arm tactics that were employed during the war. Certainly, some were blameworthy. However, there are also many preconceptions and misconceptions that should be dispelled if a just resolution of the problems that have now been identified is to be achieved.

First, the Italians were not Nazis.

They were war-time enemies of the United States and fascism was despicable. But Italy resisted the Holocaust. Italy did not deport Jews to Germany, like France or other countries did. Approximately 85% of Italy’s Jews survived the Holocaust. Indeed, Italy shares with Denmark the distinction of saving the highest percentage of Jewish lives. Italy was, of course, a member of the Axis until 1943, but Italians were not Nazis. Italy fought against the Nazis for the last two years of the war. As a result, over 640,000 Italian troops were sent to German concentration camps.

As a company founded and managed by Jews right up until the war, Generali did what it could to resist Nazification. This is not a casual statement; instead, it is one based on extensive, ongoing research of Generali’s experience during the war years.

EXHIBIT A is a memorandum written in 1945 by Antonio Cosulich, then President of Generali. This document was sent by the U.S. Embassy in Rome to the Allied Military Government and it was recently discovered in the National Archives. Simply put, this account, by Cosulich, regarding Michele Sulfina, a Jewish Manager of Generali, describes the company’s position during the War. Let me read from section 1, paragraph 4:

"Immediately upon the ‘Anschluss’ and the Sudeten campaign, the Assicurazioni Generali came in conflict with the Germans and at the outbreak of the present war all the organization of the Company in Central Europe had to submit to the harsh Nazi laws as it has been the case of companies who had in their capital English participations or interests.

Here it is enough to recall that the Assicurazioni Generali were operating in Central Europe since over a century. They did not start operations there in recent war years, but in that period had to suffer destructions, looting and spoliations."

The same memorandum (EXHIBIT B) on page 3 outlines Generali’s "policy of demobilization and withdrawal from Nazi Central Europe" which included:

"Surrender of the majority of the Fenix company and of all the participations in the ‘Olwag’ Company, the ‘Bundeslander’ company; the Allgis company, and the ‘Heimat’ Company;

Surrender of of the interest of the A.G. in the ‘Deutscher Lloyd Leben’ and in the ‘Erste Allgemeine’ company;

Sale of one half of the majority in the Polish affiliation;

Extreme resolution of the complete withdrawal from all the business in the Fire and other similar classes of insurance in Germany, started as far back as 1849."

The memo goes on to discuss the personal situation of Mr. Sulfina, a Jewish Manager of Generali, who had remained with the company until the Nazis forced him out and placed a bounty on his head.

Another document, this one prepared by the U.S. delegation to the Austrian Treaty Commission, is a report on "German Assets in Insurance" (EXHIBIT C). I quote from page 5 of this document, discussing Generali’s forced divestiture in 1938 of its interest in the Austrian insurance firm Wiener Allianz, a part of the Allianz Konzern: "The three Assicurazioni Generali directors on the Board of Allianz Versicherungs were Jewish. It was made very plain to them that they were not welcome at the Board meetings."

There is also significant evidence to demonstrate that Generali did what it could on numerous occasions to aid those Jewish employees of the company who were being forced out of positions due to the racial laws of the time. Generali has a number of letters and accounts from Jewish employees who were aided by the company during this tragic time. I would like to take a moment to turn your attention to one of those letters.

(EXHIBIT D) is the case of Otto Zeller. Generali assisted in procuring permits and a new position within the company during Mr. Zeller’s relocation in Brazil. Zeller’s brief response speaks volumes about those tragic times:

"It is from the bottom of my heart that I write these words to express my enormous gratitude for the sympathy shown to me in allowing me to continue in Brazil the work that I have carried out conscientiously and enthusiastically in the company for so many years.

I am determined to continue to serve the Company with the same commitment and the same sentiment that have thus far inspired me in my work, and I am confident to succeed in carrying out the tasks assigned to me, giving you no cause to regret the trust you have placed in me.

Please accept the affectionate devotion with which I remain Your obedient servant."

At the conclusion of the war, the Prefect of Trieste, the equivalent of a governor of that region of Italy, who was himself a survivor of Dachau and appointed by the Allied Military Government, wrote a letter commending Generali on its conduct during the war. This is (EXHIBIT E). I note that Antonio Cosulich, referred to in this letter, is the same individual who authored the memorandum from which I quoted earlier.

Let us now turn to the issue that has brought you here today, the claims of Holocaust victims and their heirs. Generali, in fact, has paid numerous claims of Holocaust victims.

(EXHIBIT F) are copies of the actual payment ledgers used by Generali during 1946, 1947 and 1948. Listed are the names of policy-holders and the amounts paid on their policies. In the last column, chillingly titled "osservazioni" or reason of death, you will find numerous entries which read "Morte in Campo Concentramento." Or, "Morte en Campo Concentramento, Mauthausen."

This is clear evidence that Generali did pay on policies of concentration camp victims in Western countries.

The question with respect to Generali, then is more pointed—why were policies that were issued in Eastern and Central Europe not paid? The short answer is that Generali’s businesses, as well as those of other insurers in those countries, were nationalized, expropriated, or liquidated by the governments that came into power in those countries after the war. The assets and property which backed policy-holders’ insurance throughout Central and Eastern Europe were confiscated.

The Communist regimes that swept across Central and Eastern Europe and seized control in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and other countries became the successors to our insurance business. They became legally and morally obligated to the Holocaust victims and their families who were the beneficiaries of policies issued by Generali before the war, when it had control of its business and assets. And if, for whatever reason, their claims may or may not have been made before, it is to the governments and successor entities in those countries that the families of the victims should be looking, morally and legally, for recompense.

Let us turn to specifics. In Czechoslovakia, for instance, all insurance activities were nationalized by Presidential decree in October of 1945. A Czech state company, Ceskoslovenska Pojistovna, was empowered by the state to assume Generali’s business.

(EXHIBIT G) is a copy of the Czechoslovakian Presidential Decree declaring, "On the day this decree is published contractual (private) insurance companies in the territory of the Czechoslovak Republic are nationalized by the State."

(EXHIBIT H) is a copy of an original letter from the Czech government to Generali. This letter clearly states that the new Czech company assumes all "rights and obligations of Generali in that country."

(EXHIBIT I) is a Title document for a property in Prague. The translation clearly shows the building at this location was purchased by Assicurazioni Generali of Trieste on May 5, 1894. On October 4, 1947, according to the Ministry of Finance, the ownership transferred to Prazska Pojistovna Narodni Podnik. In total, throughout Europe, the Communist authorities seized 184 offices and 14 companies that were controlled by Generali.

Such nationalization or similar programs were repeated throughout Eastern and Central Europe in the post-war years. (EXHIBIT J) is a letter from the Hungarian authorities in Budapest which gives the order to begin the "liquidation" of Generali. In Western Europe, where Generali’s assets had not been taken and it was allowed to continue doing business and was not expropriated, it paid all legitimate claims presented. But in places where Generali’s assets were confiscated, the confiscating authorities are responsible for the policy obligations which were backed by the assets taken.

(EXHIBIT K) reflects the thinking of U.S. Government officials at the time immediately following the war and underscores the soundness of Generali’s position today. This is a letter from the U.S. Embassy in Rome telling a U.S. Congressman that his constituent "should apply to the Government of Poland for any payments due on policies."

Generali would like to work with this committee and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners as we have already begun to do, in order to identify the successors to Generali in these various Eastern and Central European countries. Generali would also be pleased to assist you in providing documentation regarding expropriation in these countries. Such documents might guide you in your review of the war period and its aftermath.

In the spirit of helping the victims of the Shoah and their families, in July of last year, Generali established a Policy Information Center in the United States. Through this center, anyone who believes that he, she, or a family member may have held a Generali insurance policy during the war era can request a search of Generali’s archives. (EXHIBIT L) Our toll free number, 800-456-8174, has processed hundreds of inquiries and we are currently conducting those policy searches.

Generali is completing the process of computerizing the Policy Information Center to make these searches more efficient. The company has also invited representatives from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Jerusalem, to view our information center and coordinate the information exchange between the company and the museum as we work together to assist ongoing Holocaust research efforts. (EXHIBIT M)

It should also be understood that, unlike anyone else, Generali has established a fund in the sum of $12 million in memory of those who perished in the Holocaust. (EXHIBIT N) Fund moneys will be given to organizations and public bodies dedicated to the eternalization of the memory of the Holocaust and to the assistance of Holocaust victims and their families. Fund moneys may be applied toward discretionary payments to those who held Generali policies before World War II in Eastern and Central Europe, or to their loved ones who survived them. The fund has been established to support these objectives not only in Israel, but throughout the world.

This public fund is being administered as a non-profit trust by an independent board of trustees chaired by the Honorable Dov Levin, a retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel. The trust will be publishing its procedures for application shortly, and will be publicizing these procedures worldwide. All of your constituents are welcome to contact the board of trustees to apply to this fund.

We look forward to continuing to work with you to achieve a sound and equitable resolution of the issues raised here today. I thank you for the opportunity to address the Committee.

 



 

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