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Sleuth tracks down pre-WWII Jewish policies

Survivors could claim the proceeds, Risk International chief says

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Terrell Hunt calls what he does "insurance archaeology — sort of "Indiana Jones and the Lost Policy."

His current mission is to track down insurance policies taken out by European Jews prior to World War II, policies that could now be claimed by survivors and heirs of the Holocaust. In town Friday to address the 20th annual Jewish Genealogy Conference, Hunt told his audience that the recovery of Jewish assets is both possible and necessary to give survivors and heirs "some sense of rough justice."

The effort to recover insurance assets follows similar efforts to reclaim Jewish assets in Swiss bank accounts and to receive restitution for Nazi-era slave labor.

The large majority of European Jews held insurance policies, says Hunt, president of Risk International Services. "The Jews in Europe had a long and unfortunate history of being pursued by their government. They didn't trust their government, so they turned to insurance as the means of financial planning and providing their children with a better life than they had."

Jews had life insurance, business insurance, property insurance and dowry annuities taken out when their daughters were born.

After the Holocaust, though, when survivors and heirs tried to cash in the policies or collect on claims, they were turned down. "You need a death certificate," they were sometimes told, but of course the concentration camps didn't provide death certificates. Or "you needed to make the claim within five years of the death," or "you didn't keep up your premium payments," or "the Nazis confiscated the policies."

"Within the Jewish community, it became the culture that these insurance assets were not worth anything," says Hunt, "so for the most part the claims stopped."

But several years ago, spurred on by Deborah Senn, chair of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners' Holocaust Work Group, Hunt's company began doing insurance archaeology work to locate Jewish insurance assets.

To date, Risk International has identified 350,000 documents that it is hoped will help Jews locate the policies and then recover assets. His company has also identified 60,000 names of policyholders and hopes to eventually come up with 1 million names, says Hunt.

What has helped this process, he says, is the Nazi penchant for keeping lists and records. Before the German government seized Jewish assets, he says, it first tricked Jews into declaring those assets. Many of these lists are still in archives. Risk International has recently recovered "crucial documents" from archives in Berlin, Koblenz, Moscow, Rome and Vienna, he says. Documents have also been found, he says, that prove that the insurance companies engaged in "bad faith practices" that discriminated against Jewish policyholders.

Risk International has established a Web site — LivingHeirs.com — where names of policyholders are arranged by country. Heirs who find relatives' names on the lists can contact the foreign archives themselves or pay Risk International $55 to do the work for them.

After it's been documented that a policy or policies exist, heirs have several options, says Hunt. They can work through the International Commission for Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC), file a class action lawsuit or file individual family claims.

For most people, the assets probably aren't large enough to warrant such a suit, says Hunt. But even finding the documents themselves can be valuable, he says.

Recently, he says, he sat across from a man who got tears in his eyes when he described what it was like to see documents written by his grandmother, who had died in a concentration camp. "I never realized," he told Hunt, "that my grandmother's handwriting was just like my mother's."

E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com