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Committee on Financial Services

United States House of Representatives

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STATEMENT OF DR. TOM WEISS

UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
COMMITTEE ON BANKING AND FINANCIAL SERVICES

February 12, 1998

 

Mr. Chairman and Member of the Committee:

My name is Dr. Thomas Weiss. I am a practicing ophthalmologist in Miama Beach, Florida. I am currently Chairman of the Division of Ophthalmology at the Miami Heart Institute.

I want to thank Chairman Leach and Committee members and especially Congressman Foley from my home State of Florida for having this hearing today to learn about the Holocaust era insurance issues. So much has been kept under wraps for so many years. I know I speak for thousands of survivors and family members of Holocaust victims in thanking the United States Congress for commencing this inquiry. I also hope that by sharing my family’s experiences here today others like me and my parents will ask the necessary questions about their possible stolen insurance policies before all of the memories are too old to reconstruct their families’ histories.

I also want to especially thank Commissioner Deborah Senn of the State of Washington for taking the lead on this issue and Commissioner Quackenbush of California, Nelson of Florida, and Levin of New York for adding their prestige to these inquiries.

I was born in Prague in 1949. My father was 54 years old. He survived Auschwitz at the age of 50, although his first wife and three children perished there.. My mother was 42 years old, she had no children prior to her internment. Her first husband died in the camps. I found myself in Miami Beach at the age of 6 months old through the courtesy of HIAS, which was a relief organization, based in New York, that aided survivors of the Holocaust who had entry permits to immigrate to America.

Growing up in Miami Beach was wonderful. I fished, I scuba dived, we did all the things that Miami and Florida is famous for. It was only as I started getting older that I realized there was a huge dark deep secret that my community, including my parents, were suffering with, and were unable to talk about. They were ashamed and depressed and I couldn’t understand why. It became clear that a huge tragedy had occurred, and that I, and others of my generation, were heirs to an unspeakable horror. The details that have now become more public, as in the movie by Spielberg, Schindler’s List, only speak to the surface of the fear, of the atrocities, and of the rape of an entire nation.

My father was born in a place called Nodsevlus (now Vinogrado) in 1895, which was at that time, part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the Hapsburg Empire. He was born to a landed gentry family that had large holdings in real estate and cattle, vineyards, and agriculture. When my father finished his schooling, including German schooling, he set up a commodities business in 1933-35 that had offices in Prague, Budapest, and in Nodsevlus that sold sunflower oil and cakes, walnuts, and grains, through the ports of Bremen, Hamburg, Danzig, and on the Adriatic.

At that time there was an agent in town by the name of Mr. Joseph Schreiber who constantly pestered my father to buy insurance. Mr. Schreiber’s business was located at a desk in the Duna Bank. The Duna Bank had, on its marquee, the royal lion of the company, Assicurazioni Generali.. Mr. Schreiber successfully convinced my father to purchase property, casualty, fire policies and an annuity. Before the Second World War, my father was in the privileged position of being extremely wealthy himself and of marrying a younger woman who had an unusually large amount of money - her dowry. He had much more money than he needed at that time, and wanted to find a secure place for some of his family's wealth. Remember, there was no such thing as FDIC insurance for banks at the time. In 1937, Mr. Schreiber induced him to buy an insurance policy with Generali, which was considered a pillar of financial stability at the time. The policy was a Czech crown policy that was linked to the American dollar. My father estimated that at the time the value of the policy dollar-wise was in excess of $50,000. Keep in mind that one crown was able to buy many kilos of bread, and there were 50 crowns to the dollar. We’re talking about an unusual sum of money.

I know this Committee has heard many of the tragic stories of our peoples internment, murder, and financial victimization. My parents’ experience was not atypical.

The town had been taken over by the Hungarian/German Army. The Army has a very precise, almost checklist procedure. Their procedure was to take the wealthy in town and convince them, by method of beating on their testicles, that they need to reveal the location of their assets and how the Jewish residents were going to transfer this to the Hungarian/Nazi authorities.

My mother remembers being taken back to her house about two days after she was in the Ghetto, because her husband, who was a dentist, had not properly revealed, after a long series of beatings, where the gold from his dental practice was. So my mother revealed it because she wanted to stop the beatings her husband was receiving. In May of 1944, my parents and all the Jewish residents of Nodsevlus and environs were sent to Auschwitz by train.

My father was taken to various work sites. Auschwitz was ringed by 17 sub-workgroups, including IG Farben and Krupp and they worked as slave laborers in different locations there. The corporations paid the Reich for their work. My mother was transferred Oct. 28, 1944, along with her two sisters and other Czech women to a work camp Gross-Rosen, in a town called Zittau situated in S. Germany. She made speedometer parts for the firm of Messerschmidt, a subdivision of the Henkel corporation.

My parents were liberated in approximately Spring of ’45. My father had typhus in Dachau and was liberated by Patton’s army. He was nurtured back to health by the medical corps. When he and other people went back to their town, the Jewish houses were completely filled up with Russian populations that had been ushered into the area. The Russian populations that had been moved into the area to create on-the-ground facts. The Russians then had "a vote" and the populations voted to secede from Czechoslovakia. To become part of the Ukraine, which occurred.

Of course, many people had no papers because the Russian populations had disposed of all the personal articles that were left by the survivors and had burned them. For those new residents, there was no reason to keep paper and photographs of strangers .

As I mentioned before, my father was never very communicative about his war experiences. Talking about these kinds of things brought back too much pain which caused him to cry uncontrollably and it was only after many years that I was able to understand the story as I've outlined it here. In fact he never mentioned this insurance policy to me until 1984. At that time, he marveled at how the insurance company beat him. Since Mr. Schreiber also sold policies to many other people in this region, and using the name of Mr. Joseph Schreiber, I wrote the different companies throughout the area, starting in 1984 to see if we could trace down the policies and the results and claims thereof.

Generali wrote back and said that Czechoslovakia had nationalized Generali’s assets and so they weren’t even going to look for my father's policy. Further they stated that no actual insurance policies existed because they were destroyed during the War or by the Communists.

Most people in my father’s position were met with desultory rejections in trying to claim insurance proceeds, beginning with the fact that they had no piece of paper, and including many other excuses which you will I’m sure hear about today.

I urge you to be skeptical of the insurers' smooth presentations. Their practice to date is to make technical but misleading pronouncements and recede trench by trench only after someone else establishes a fact they cannot deny. In 1984 they told my father that there was no policy and no way to find a policy, and even if there was a policy they had no legal or moral responsibility. In October of 1996 Generali publicly denied the existence of certain pre war insurance records because "documents and details relating to specific policies were normally kept in the Prague Branch office". But in March of 1997, after press reports of an archive in Italy, they admitted that in fact there was an archive in Trieste which contained "a number of documents relating to the insurance business it carried out in Central-Easter European countries."

You will also note that in these early press releases rejecting responsibility because of the communist nationalization, Generali never mentioned that it had received a substantial sum of money from the Czech-Italian settlement treaty. Now they admit the treaty but asset a narrow interpretation which would require Holocaust victims to look to the Czech government for payment of these funds. Funds, remember, which the company itself received but never paid out.

That same March 1997 press release said that Generali would agree to a procedure for an examination of its records in Trieste "which would enable an agreed, acceptable body to identify Jewish policy holders in Central and Eastern Europe." Later in 1997, Generali published its "Open Letter to the Families of Holocaust Victims" in major urban newspapers and in several Jewish publications in the United States. In that letter Generali invited families of Holocaust victims to send their names to obtain an archival search of the archive in Trieste (an archvie they did not admit existed six months earlier). I submitted such a request in June of 1997, which Generali acknowledged in writing. But I have received nothing else since then from Generali.

What is even more disturbing is that Generali is conducting its records search by itself, with no independent verification whatsoever. This despite their earlier commitment to an agreed, acceptable body to identify Jewish policy holders. I understand that to this day they have also refused voluntarily to allow the state insurance commissioners to conduct an independent audit of their records.

In summary, it is important to realize that there was a huge transfer of wealth from populations in Europe to these insurance companies. And I think, Congressmen, that you realize, and you have stepped forward, because you know in your gut, that the Swiss bank accounts pale by comparison to the net asset value of these companies. What needs to happen here, and what can you do?

The total universe of companies and policies needs to be identified. The projected payout from that period needs to be quantified. Archivists, actuaries, insurance regulators, lawyers and researchers need to be brought into the physical locations of these insurance companies to supervise the work that needs to be done. The insurance companies themselves cannot be relied upon to accurately complete this job. Their slick and cynical disclosure history I just reviewed prove that the authority of this Congress, State regulators, and the American judicial system should be brought to bear to correct this financial crime against humanity.

In my individual case, this is a matter of preventing the insurance company from being unjustly enriched at the expense of my family. For hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors whose lives after the war should have been eased somewhat by the return of the Jewish people's assets, this is a matter of ensuring a measure of human dignity for people whose suffering cannot be measured.

In conclusion, you are fighting the good fight. This is nothing less than the remaining vestiges of World War II. The same way that World War II was the last good fight that we all agreed on, of good versus pure evil, I would say to you, do not let these insurance companies laugh at you by holding on to the trillions of dollars that they have illegally, unjustly and immorally enriched themselves with. You have the ability to do what’s right.

Thank you.



 

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