lady painting

 

Jan 2008 Journal

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Theft

Several years ago, the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) published a list of German Jews who may have had insurance policies they had to abandon, either because they were forced to flee Germany to avoid Nazi persecution or because they were unable to escape and were dragged off to concentration camps. In still other cases, Jews were forced to sign their policies over to the Nazis.

The list was published on the internet and was the talk of my community of North London Jews who were Holocaust survivors or their descendants. We, particularly those over the age of 60 without computers, phoned friends and asked them to ask their children or grandchildren to check the list for our names.

I logged on to the internet and, in almost no time at all, found my father’s name on the list. I don’t know why I was surprised. My father was, after all, a successful, modern businessman with a young family - a person who would sensibly buy insurance. But neither of my parents had ever mentioned owning an insurance policy. It was never included in the list of items the Nazis stole from our family which my mother would at times recite with great anger.

When I had secured an application form from the AJR, I phoned my two sisters in New York. We agreed that the youngest of us, Lea, would be the claimant. Our application was posted in November 2003.

For two years nothing happened. Then, in August 2005, we received a standard letter from an official of ICHEIC. Addressed to ‘Dear Claimant’, the letter explained that some claims were impossible to validate due to the ravages of war and the passage of time, but that we had provided sufficient information for the Commission to conclude that the ‘individual[s]’ named in our claim ‘possibly held some form of insurance’. For these situations, the Commission had created a humanitarian award category and offered us $1,000.

A standard letter yes - but one that sent money. My share of $333 sat in a New York bank. The money meant nothing to me. It seemed to have nothing to do with our family. It was unrelated to the trauma of Kristallnacht and the family’s flight to France, where my parents were interned in half-a-dozen concentration camps and my younger sister became a hidden child, while my elder sister and I joined a Kindertransport.

Then, unexpectedly, we received a second letter, addressed by name this time. Father’s insurance policy had been found. The records showed ‘the surrender value was paid to him on June 19, 1939’. That couldn’t be right. My father was no longer in Germany on that date. But this was specific. It was about us. It was an acknowledgment in black-and-white. It was the Nazis saying, 65 years later, ‘We did this to you. We stole what was yours.’

Soon a third communication arrived - a photocopy of a document headed Rückkaufsquittung. This re-purchase receipt proved the existence of an actual life insurance policy that my father had taken out. It also explained the contradiction in dates. On June 19, 1939 it was my mother who had been forced to sign the agreement, giving away more than 1,000 Marks. It was all arranged a few days before she, my sisters and I left Germany. The proceeds of the policy were paid into a blocked account in the Dresden Bank in our hometown of Halle, so mother never got the money. Even if she had, she couldn’t have kept it. A Jew leaving Germany was permitted to take out of the country no more than 10 Marks - in our case, 40 Marks for mother and three daughters. That paltry sum was nowhere near the insurance payout of 1,147.84 Marks.

This was a repetition of another occasion on which the Nazis had forced my mother to sign. I remembered the rage with which she recounted how she had been forced to sign over my father’s store to the Nazis for a paltry sum, less than a tenth of its true value, and then concluding the story: ‘Of course, I never got even that money!’

My sister Lea went crazy when she first saw the swastika stamp next to my mother’s signature. I was equally enraged - not at the swastika but at my mother’s signature: ‘Amalie Sara Kanner’. My mother didn’t have a middle name, but she signed with one. I understood at once. I knew the Nazi decree. Men without a middle name were forced to adopt the middle name Israel; women were assigned the name Sara.

Sara is the mother of the Jewish people. It is an honourable name. But it was not part of my mother’s name. She was not Amalie Sara. Looking now at this signature, I could feel the humiliation, as she was ordered not just where to sign, but how. She would have been conservatively dressed, presumably wearing a hat, because in those days women always wore hats when they went out, the hat perhaps adding to her diminutive height. But in spite of her immaculate outfit and her ability to maintain a benign expression to hide her rage, she could not have stopped the rush of blood that would have coloured her face as she signed.

Eva Kugler

previous article:Where are those ‘museum pieces’ exactly?
next article:Book review: The standard text for the history of Pankow Jewry