Marta's List: The Pursuit of Holocaust Survivors' Lost Insurance Claims
By Steven Sullivan
This Article appears in the July/August 1998 issue of Contingencies: American Academy of Actuaries
Deck: Insurance policies were the poor man's Swiss bank account in Europe before World War II, accounting for billions of dollars in benefits. In the wake of the Holocaust, only a fraction of that money was paid out. What happened to the rest? Now, more than 50 years later, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners is spearheading an effort to find out. Before it's too late.
Text: To her, they were only numbers. They were in her father's elegant handwriting, scribbled on a piece of paper the size of a post card. She had no idea what they meant. All she knew is that they had been written long ago, in another world, and they were all she had left of the man she had known as her father.
It was 1945. She was 17. Her name was Drucker then, Marta Drucker. She was all that remained of the once prosperous, happy, middle-class Czech family of Dr. Leopold Drucker. She had survived three-and-a-half years in Nazi concentration camps, working as slave labor in the fields. She was lucky to be alive. And she had nothing. No money, no home, no family save an 80-year-old grandmother who had miraculously survived the camps. Her world was shattered, her life changed forever.
One day, after she had returned to her home town of Rakovnik, a man came to visit. She doesn't remember his name, only that he had known her father and that he was kind. And that he told her what the numbers and words on the piece of paper meant.
She still has the paper, more than 50 years later. It's yellow and fragile but its message is no longer a mystery. Marta knows what the numbers mean and so do a great many other people. She lives in New York now, her last name is Cornell, and she is 70 years old. Back in September last year Marta Cornell told her story of the numbers to a hushed panel of insurance regulators in Washington, D.C. who listened intently to every word.
It was insurance, she told them. Insurance policy numbers. Dates, amounts, names of companies. The life insurance policies her father bought when she and her sister were born, the same way any successful, wealthy man in his position would prepare for the futures of his wife and children.
The man who visited her, her father's insurance agent, tried to help her collect on those policies in 1945. "He told me the policies were purchased from Generali and Reunione Adriatica di Sicurth," she says. "When I tried to get the insurance monies, I had to fill out many forms. However, those companies refused to pay the benefits or give me any explanation of why they refused to pay on the policies."
She still has those claim forms, too. One for each policy on the list. And the company letters refusing to honor them.
She tried again in 1964, the year she immigrated to the United States. This time there were explanations, so clotted with insurance jargon they were virtually impenetrable. But the message was clear: Not our problem. Try somewhere else. The companies explained that they, too, were victims of Hitler's aggression, their assets confiscated by the Third Reich. Then, after the war, many of their assets were nationalized when Eastern Europe became part of the Soviet Bloc in 1948. And besides, they said, her father had failed to make the premium payments that would have kept the policies in force. Therefore, the policies were null and void.
"At that time, if they would have agreed to settle with me, I would have taken anything because I had nothing," Marta says. But she wonders why, if nationalization didn't happen until 1948, the companies couldn't honor their commitments in 1945. "There were three years in between when they could have done something."
She's not the only one wondering. Exactly what obligations do insurance companies have to the heirs of policyholders who defaulted for extraordinary reasons wildly beyond their control? More than 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust between 1933 and 1945, many of them owners of life insurance policies they fully intended to keep in force until their families needed them. In addition to life insurance they bought retirement policies and dowry policies, designed to pay off when a daughter reached the age of marriage.
We know what happened to the people. What happened to their money? How many of these policies are there? Is there any record of them? How many policyholders and their heirs are still alive? And if they're entitled to the proceeds of those policies purchased and lost so long ago, exactly how much are they entitled to and who's going to pay them?
These are the questions a special working group of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) wants to answer. In a series of emotionally charged hearings held all across the country in 1997, commissioners from 27 states heard testimony from Holocaust survivors and the heirs of Holocaust victims as well as representatives from the implicated insurers.
What jurisdiction do American regulators have over something that happened so long ago and so far away? The answer is fairly simple and not without irony. Of all the insurers who sold life and property/casualty policies in Europe in the years before World War II, some are still in business and some aren't. The companies still in operation (Allianz, Winterthur, Generali, AXA, and others) swallowed up some of the smaller ones to become the gigantic, worldwide carriers they are today. In fact, all of these companies, usually through the acquisition of U.S. subsidiaries, have a presence in the insurance markets of at least a portion of the United States. And their ability to do business in those states is very much at the mercy of the state insurance commissioner.
An insurance commissioner's job is to protect the insurance interests of the consumers in his or her state. Among those consumers are a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors and their heirs, scattered all across the country, who have a putative interest in insurance polices purchased long ago and far away. In some cases they can produce actual policies, pieces of paper written in German or French or Italian legalese, hidden in confiscated homes or ruined ghettos and smuggled out after the war. Others, like Marta Cornell, have only policy numbers that can, in theory at least, be linked up with actual policy records in company archives. Still others have only a memory, or the certainty that the hardworking, responsible man who headed their family would certainly have had a life insurance policy. In all cases, these policies were purchased in good faith, in full expectation that the promises they contained would be kept. In most cases, however, they have not.
The issue of lost insurance policies was slow to surface. It emerged quietly in the wake of a larger controversy over millions of Holocaust victims' dollars held in Swiss bank accounts. It was a news story about a class action lawsuit against European insurers that caught the attention of Deborah Senn, insurance commissioner for the state of Washington. The suit was brought by Holocaust survivors and heirs, seeking almost a billion dollars of unpaid insurance claims.
"I read about this lawsuit in a magazine and a light bulb went on over my head," Senn recalls. "Insurance! Of course! So I sent a letter out to some of the survivors we have addresses for in Washington and I got 50 inquiries, people who had policy numbers, names, types of policies, a valuable art collection that had been lost. Generali was the shetel insurer, selling these policies every week. One of the survivors even remembers her mother skipping fish on Friday night so they could pay their premiums."
Late last year, Senn brought her findings to a meeting of the NAIC and piqued the interest of a number of commissioners from other states. By the time they had finished listening to the stories of Marta Cornell and others, Senn was chairing a working group of commissioners from 27 states who were determined to effect some kind of resolution to the problem. They held hearings in Seattle, New York, Chicago, and Miami—communities with unusually large populations of survivors—and heard their stories. Their message to the companies: Do something about this, or don't expect to do business in my state.
They heard from Rudy Rosenberg, who was only 12 in 1942. But he vividly remembers two life insurance agents from Winterthur Insurance Co. visiting his family's home in Brussels and selling his father a policy they said was designed especially for Jews. They also asked for the names of other Jews in the neighborhood.
"These men told my father they had a special insurance they could give us," Rosenberg said. "You only had to pay 50 percent of the policy on signing and the balance of the premium would have to be paid only on the anniversary of the policy a year later. At the time I thought it was very nice of them that someone was willing to insure us, even though we were doomed at the time." (Winterthur denies it ever had such a marketing policy, but says it has records proving the policy was paid to someone in Rosenberg's family after the war.)
They heard from Margaret Zentner who tried to collect on an Allianz policy and was told the proceeds had already been paid to the Nazis, "the SS, to be exact. Outraged, I wrote to Allianz to object. I never received another response and never heard another word from the company." She persisted, gaining access to company files that alleged she had canceled the policy in March 1942. "I could not have canceled the policy in March 1942," Zentner insisted. "I was an inmate of Theresienstadt starting in December 1941."
All across the country the commissioners heard stories of corporate indifference and even hostility toward the survivors. They were told the company no longer existed or it had been nationalized by the Communists and these claims were no longer their problem. Or they were told they needed a death certificate in order to collect on a legitimate policy.
Said one witness in Chicago: "They didn't issue death certificates at Auschwitz."
One of the NAIC hearings took place in Skokie, a Chicago suburb famous as the home of many Holocaust survivors. Significantly, it was held on November 10, 1997, the 59th anniversary of an event called Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.
"On the night of November 9—10, 1938," writes William L. Shirer in his massive The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, "the worst pogrom that had yet taken place in the Third Reich occurred. It was a night of horror throughout Germany. Synagogues, Jewish homes and shops went up in flames and several Jews, men, women and children, were shot or otherwise slain while trying to escape burning to death."
No one seems to know exactly how many Jews were murdered that night. The ultimate number probably exceeds even official estimates. Records are clear, however, that the event's architects—namely Reinhard Heydrich and Hermann Goering—had no interest in underestimating the damages or the body count. They were pleased with how well things had gone and disappointed they couldn't have gone further.
There was at least one group, however, in addition to the victims themselves, who were not pleased with the results: the property and casualty insurers of Germany. On November 12, Dr. Eduard Hilgard, head of a federation of German insurers and a director of Allianz, met with Nazi leaders. By Hilgard's estimate, the evening of Nazi excess that so delighted Heydrich and Goering would cost insurers at least 25 million marks—more than $6 million—and he was wondering how they were going to pay it without bankrupting many of the smaller German insurers.
The Nazi solution was simple: Don't pay. Or rather, they would pay the claims of any Aryan Germans who had inadvertently lost property in the melee, but all claims of German Jews would be categorically denied. (Claims of foreign Jews would be honored, but only because officials feared the Third Reich's international reputation might be harmed.)
"This much is well known by anyone familiar with the history of the Third Reich," says Terrell E. Hunt, president of Risk International Services of Houston. "What isn't so well known is what happened afterward. We have documents that indicate that this arrangement, established to apply to this singular property damage claim, was expanded at the suggestion and entrepreneurial creativity of the insurance industry to also apply to life insurance claims and virtually every other category of insurance."
Terrell characterizes the work of his company as "insurance archeology." Typically, the activities of Risk International are restricted to tracing the many historical strata of environmental liability claims. But when Hunt heard about the work of the commissioners, he faxed Senn a memo, saying that before anyone could collect on a Holocaust-era insurance policy, they'd have to find the policy.
"Twenty minutes later the phone rang. It was the commissioner's staff saying, `Can you guys do that?' We said we didn't know but we'd find out."
Hunt and members of his staff worked pro bono at first, poring over Holocaust-era archives in the U.S. and Europe, archives that had been pored over before by countless historians and researchers. But rather than reconstructing the cultural heritage of Eastern European Jews, Hunt's sleuths were looking for clues, signposts in the torturous paper trail of post-war Europe that would lead to a smoking gun. They brought to the search a trained eye, alert to documents that others might consider unimportant. And they found what they were looking for.
Hunt calls it the Salomon Korner document, named for an Austrian Jew who held a life insurance policy issued by Adriatica, a large Italian insurance company at the time, now a subsidiary of Allianz. The document is printed on the letterhead of the state police of Austria, a form on which a state police functionary would type the name of an individual and the identity of the asset to be confiscated. He would then send it to whomever had custody or control of the asset and order the asset to be sold and the proceeds sent to the Reich's treasury. In Solomon Korner's case, the document was his life insurance policy.
"With the full document is a receipt stamp, showing it was received by Adriatica," says Hunt. "We believe it contains all the information necessary to pursue a claim today on behalf of Salomon Korner's heirs. We do not know for a fact that Adriatica paid that claim to the Reich's treasury, but it's certainly reasonable to assume it did. Perhaps more importantly, Adriatica knows and that's one reason we need to get into the files of the life insurance companies to determine exactly what they did in each instance of a Jewish life insurance policy."
But in a search such as this, one piece of evidence seldom stands alone; disparate pieces tend to shed light on each other, pointing out a pattern, telling a story. What Hunt's researchers also found were documents relating to the aftermath of that famous, post-Kristallnacht meeting. Letters on insurance company letterhead to the Third Reich that point to enthusiastic complicity in the denial of insurance proceeds to Jews.
"It's a smoking gun in that it's the administrative mechanism by which this policy of not paying proceeds to the Jews, established at that meeting and pursued by the carriers afterward, was implemented. We believe there are hundreds of thousands of those documents in the files of the insurance companies. They would have to maintain such files to explain and justify their action of paying the proceeds to the Reich's treasury."
And where did he find this smoking gun?
"I won't tell you," Hunt laughs. He's not kidding. "We consider where we find these documents to be proprietary information. We know the source and could demonstrate it in a court of law if we had to, but for now the documents speak for themselves. This very document has been found by other archivists and, in fact, the insurance company itself takes great pride in the fact that the only reason we found it is that they put it in the public domain to be found. Which is true. So it ultimately came from Adriatica itself."
Hot Words, Cool Responses
It would be hard to imagine a more hapless and unenviable position: Sitting in a New York hearing room, facing a panel of hostile politicians and insurance commissioners, defending your client's refusal to pay insurance benefits to sympathetic claimants who happen to be aging survivors of the Holocaust. William Brodsky may be a tough, experienced New York trial attorney but this could not have been the high point of his day.
"Brodsky, you wouldn't be on my payroll for long," thundered Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) into the microphone. He was brandishing a letter Brodsky had signed on behalf of his client, the Swiss insurer Winterthur. The letter expressed Winterthur's view that U.S. insurance commissioners have no jurisdiction over Winterthur and no right to examine the company's records. Sen. D'Amato begged to differ.
"This pack of garbage!" he sputtered. "This letter is morally bankrupt! Bankrupt! Morally! I have to tell you something, as commissioners. If I had these guys doing business in my town, I'd do everything I could to let people know how morally bankrupt and deceitful they are!"
Things went not much better for James Davis, a lawyer representing Basler Leben, another Swiss insurer being sued under the class action by Holocaust survivors. He started by wishing everybody a good morning, then was informed it was actually afternoon.
"I think I'm sufficiently uncomfortable at this point that I might be capable of mistaking morning for afternoon or afternoon for morning," he said.
Commissioner Senn went on to make him even more uncomfortable. She wanted to know what Basler Leben had done to settle the matter of unpaid insurance claims, and she was clearly not impressed with the answers.
"Why would you be fearful or concerned about allowing us to examine your books and records," she asked, "if you're certain that we'll find nothing more than you claim that you have been able to find?"
"Well, there are two responses to that," Davis shot back. "The first is somewhat visceral but I think meaningful. If you're being called morally corrupt, if you're the subject of charges that you believe are unjustified, I suppose you may not be inclined to invite the person who's making the charges into your living room."
Later there was this exchange between Davis and Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush of California.
Quackenbush: I've got to say that's the most amazing testimony I've ever heard from an insurance company. The last company that had that kind of attitude toward me, I seized a billion-dollar operation and sold it off back into the private sector because of just that type of attitude.
Davis: Well, if you're interested in a dialogue and you find my comments amazing, I think it's fair to say a certain amount of amazement ought to be allocated to your response to me.
Quackenbush: I'd be very careful how you respond to me. Very careful.
Davis: I'm trying to speak flatly because that's the way you've spoken to me. Basler Leben is not in California.
Quackenbush: Don't count on being there soon, either.
Not your typical, boring committee hearing. But it's an emotional issue, ripe for moral outrage and political grandstanding, and it's not always easy to tell the difference. It's an issue that has brought out the worst and the best of Europe's insurers.
Ask Catherine Lillie, deputy director of the New York State Holocaust Claims Office in downtown Manhattan. For the past 10 months she and her colleagues have been fielding more than 1,300 claims (banking as well as insurance) from all over the world, tracing them, documenting them, and trying to come to some kind of final resolution while the claimant can still benefit. It's no easy task. Besides the historical complexities and variety of languages of prewar and postwar Europe, the companies themselves have often been less than forthcoming.
"We have a bit of a gripe with some of the Austrian companies," she says. No matter how much documentation they provide, it never seems to be enough. If they provide policy numbers and premium receipts, the companies need birth dates and last-known address. Or the birth date and address may be known, but nothing can be done without a policy number. And even when all the hoops have been jumped through, they're met with an excruciating, months-long silence before being told it's not the company's problem, take it up with somebody else.
"It's somewhat insulting when we have the policy, the receipts, and we can track the people right to the end," she says. "We could have gotten that sort of reply without [having to find] any of the policy details. Everybody suffered. We're all agreed. I'm not asking for sympathy when I submit a claim. I'm asking for the fulfillment of a contract."
When Lillie handled the claim of the daughter of a Holocaust victim, for instance, she learned that the policy in question had been deemed an heirless asset by the insurance company. This came as something of a surprise to the policyholder's daughter.
"She's very much alive and well," says Lillie. "She was then, too. She's thoroughly offended that her father's account was deemed heirless. There were banks in her case that handed over money to her as the legitimate heir. She's the sole survivor. That a Swiss insurer decided that its fiduciary responsibility was not to the sole surviving daughter was extraordinary to her. And if that's any indication of how other victims were handled, I think there are some questions that ought to be asked."
But the combative tone of some companies seems to be softening. From their standpoint, the kind of corporate psychotherapy they're being subjected to can't be easy. It produces the same kind of reactions individuals have when they start burrowing into forbidden territory—pain, rage, denial. It's an area a company trying to forge a new image may be less than enthusiastic about exploring. But as one insurance company spokesman has said, though the past may not be flattering, you can't undo it. The best you can do is deal with it correctly today.
Nevertheless, these companies feel beleaguered. They are no longer in the thrall of the Third Reich. They feel, justly, that generations of turnover and massive political and economic changes have successfully purged that taint. If there were Nazis on the board of directors 50 years ago, today's directors were only children then, as appalled as the rest of the world at the excesses of their forebears. Yet now they're being asked (some might say forced) to dig into their histories and not only to face past wrongs but to right them.
At the same time, they're business people, wary of letting moral outrage, no matter how justified, control the bottom line. Their postwar histories are a mess, requiring no small investment of time and money to sort it out. And no one really knows what they'll find. The variety of their reactions to this dilemma has ranged from corporate stonewalling and evasion—the kinds of scenes played out in the NAIC hearing rooms—to reluctant acceptance. It's a public relations nightmare that some of these companies are only beginning to awaken from.
"Insurers think in terms of good claims policy," Davis told the commissioners in New York, "which generally means paying what you owe and not paying what you don't owe. Is it morally correct to make insurance companies afraid to articulate that policy? Is it morally correct to bully them into changing that policy with threats against their distant carrier cousins here in the United States?"
At least one company has been a model of cooperation since the beginning of the inquiry. Allianz AG, the large German insurer based in Munich, almost immediately took steps to conduct its own investigation of the problem. It hired the Arthur Andersen consulting firm to do a complete audit of its wartime files, looking for unpaid policies. It hired Gerald Feldman, a history professor at the University of California at Berkeley, to trace what happened to the company throughout the war and postwar period. And it set up a help line to process Holocaust era claims inquiries.
"We found that in a majority of the cases, the policies had previously been settled," says Christopher Worthley, an Allianz spokesperson in Munich. Mostly policies that were paid out in the 1930s directly to policyholders, for example those who were preparing to leave the country and emigrate to other countries. There was also a big block of policy assets that were confiscated by the Nazi government, which was then included in the restitution program. It doesn't seem widely understood that the restitution program in Germany did in fact provide restitution for face value of life insurance policies seized by the government at the time."
By 1997, the Federal Republic of Germany had paid more than DM 100 billion in restitution and compensation and expects that figure to reach DM 124 billion by 2030.
"That covered the majority of the policies," Worthley continues. "We have found, to date, six policies where we could verify from the files that the company had not yet paid and the government had not paid through the restitution program. So we offered payment on those policies. In cases where restitution had already been paid, we would not pay double."
Good intentions aside, it comes as no surprise that six policies out of untold numbers does not impress the insurance commissioners. They want to see the records themselves and they're taking steps to get over the jurisdictional hurdles that would prevent them from doing so. In early April, Commissioner Quackenbush and New York insurance superintendent Neil Levin, along with representatives from insurance companies and Jewish organizations, signed a memorandum of intent that would set up an international commission to ensure that Holocaust era claims are finally paid. Though it doesn't explicitly demand unlimited access, the memorandum stipulates an investigative process and a just mechanism for the resolution of unpaid claims. It also establishes a fund to provide immediate relief for claimants who may not have the time to wait while all this is ironed out.
At the end of April, Glenn Pomeroy, president of the NAIC, formed a task force to take matters to the next level. In addition to signing on to the memorandum of intent, he will lead a delegation to meet with European regulators to negotiate access to insurers' records.
"I'd like to think the memorandum of intent is a first step to acknowledging that there is a moral responsibility," says Catherine Lillie. "There's been 50 years of stonewalling and denial that's getting more difficult as many of these documents and archives have been declassified. It's one thing to say that the Soviets marched in 1944 and 1945, seized our archives and took everything back to Moscow. Since 1990 that's no longer an excuse."
Commissioner Senn is adamant that American regulators not negotiate away their authority and the demand for access to company records. "We must assert our authority to make sure that no deals are cut that, in any way, give the companies an out in making good on their policies," she said in a departmental press release.
And what happens then? Once the companies acknowledge the moral obligation to pay these claims, the books are finally opened and the paper trails followed to wherever they lead, what's the financial obligation? Who determines what the companies actually owe? Who decides what's fair?
"We're talking a lot of money," says Elan Steinberg. He's executive director of the World Jewish Congress in New York, a group that's been conducting research and compiling numbers to try to determine exactly how much money the Nazis stole from the Jews of Europe in World War II.
According to Steinberg, there are three basic categories of material damage. One is the lost wages of those who were imprisoned and ultimately killed. A second is the lost wages of those who were employed as slave labor. The third and largest category is the sum of all the assets seized by the Nazi government—bank accounts, jewelry, artworks, patents, trademarks, real estate. And life insurance.
"In 1945 figures, asset seizure was about $12 billion," says Steinberg. "The consumer price index has risen to about 15 times what it was then. So we're talking on the order of $150 billion. How much of that represented insurance? Right now we don't know. I can only suggest it was one of the larger components. The insurance policy, whether it was a dowry policy or a life insurance policy, was the poor man's Swiss bank account. So it's clear to us that it is probably either the largest single component or second only to real estate."
It's not clear to the companies, however. According to Chris Worthley of Allianz, the numbers involved are small.
"The notion of large sums of money being involved here are largely unrealistic," he says, "because the life insurance values of the period are very different from what we're used to now. The average life insurance policy was worth 3,000 to 6,000 Reichsmarks, the former currency, which the Allies devalued 10 to one after the war. So a policy like that paid at face value would have been DM 600, the current currency. They're very different values. The six we've paid out so far were valued up to DM 10,000 but there were dowry policies that were considerably smaller, worth about DM 1,000, for example. Life insurance values were not as they are today."
This is corroborated by Catherine Lillie, though she is unabashedly skeptical of insurance company calculations. She recalls one claim on a German policy purchased in the early 1920s, a time of hyperinflation, for 5 million marks. It was converted into Reichsmarks and went through the entire currency destabilization in the 1930s. By the time it came due in 1948, three years after the creation of the Deutschmark, that 5 million was supposed to be worth 10 million. But the insurance company calculated that it was worth less than a fraction of a cent. Not even worth the paper it was printed on.
Not surprisingly, that claimant might want a second opinion; insurance commissioners, researchers, claimants, and their attorneys are already talking about turning to actuaries. If for no other reason, sorting through this mess has got to be the kind of intellectual puzzle, a financial detective story that's right up an actuary's alley.
"There's a tremendous amount of actuarial analysis that could be done," says Deborah Senn. "The allegation has been made that these companies were freed from the obligation to pay thousands of policies. One of the things we'd like to do is take a look at their income statements over the course of time and determine about their revenue stream and income over several decades and find out if they were enriched. That's an actuarial analysis. We have to find out whatever claims there are and convert them to today's dollars and I think there will be a lot of discussion about that, too. So we do need actuaries."
"If the companies had really paid out on life insurance policies as the Jews were exterminated in the camps, they should have all gone bankrupt," says Terrell Hunt, "because the payments would have been contrary to the actuarial basis for the premium calculation. They would really have been hit hard. One can calculate what should have happened if their story were true, compared to what we're finding as the reality of their financial performance. There's evidence of complicity, or at least that they profited. Also, looking at how claims were managed may be informed by actuarial analysis. What happened to all the property damage inflicted on the Jews? What should have happened to the carriers and what actually happened?"
Then there's the matter of currency conversion, devaluation, and inflation. Holocaust-era insurance policies were issued in a bewildering Babel of currencies—Romanian, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, French, Italian— any country that was occupied or became part of the Nazi empire. A number of policies were denominated in something called New York dollars. What are they worth today? What standards and variables would you use to determine that? "Calculate everything into 1938 New York dollars and then have an independent professional organization decide how that would unfold into today's value. That might be a good role for actuaries," suggests Hunt.
For now, everything is still in pieces. Missing pieces. Pieces of paper, pieces of memory, shards of lives. All of them real, none of them abstract. Nothing fits together easily. But given the time (which is short) and the effort (which is great), they add up to something. To justice realized. Promises kept.
Meanwhile, the survivors wait. And continue to fight. Like the 90-year-old woman who personally made the trip into the Manhattan claims office, carrying every scrap of proof she had along with an equally voluminous paper trail of refusals. She came in person because it was important to her and because, finally, she had found someone who might actually listen.
"We ask people to relive a very traumatic period of their lives, " says Catherine Lillie. "I've had situations where they've come with children or grandchildren, who find themselves hearing stories for the first time. These have been taboo subjects within families for 50 plus years. Suddenly I walk in and ask a couple of very pointed questions about details, only to have an absolute floodgate open. And the children and grandchildren sit here in shock.
"It's also an indication of how hard this is to deal with in the abstract."
Steven Sullivan is editor of Contingencies.