In the matter of
THE MEMORY OF CHAIM MENDEL PICKHOLZ
ASSICURAZIONI GENERALI S.p.A.
By Israel Pickholtz
In the words of the website of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC), “ICHEIC was established in 1998 following negotiations among European insurance companies and U.S. insurance regulators, as well as representatives of international Jewish and survivor organizations and the State of Israel…to collect and facilitate the signatory companies' processing of insurance claims from the Holocaust period.” These claims resulted from the fact that many Holocaust victims held life insurance policies which were never paid after their deaths or for which payment of premiums was discontinued due to the events of the Holocaust.
During the course of 2003 and as the 31 December deadline for filing claims approached, I learned that ICHEIC maintained a searchable online database with names of policy holders and that this database had a Pickholz listed. The man in question was Chaim Mendel Pickholz and the only information listed was that the policy was issued in Czortkow, by the Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali S.p.A. (Generali).
I hadn’t a clue who this man was. Czortkow is in the general area of Skalat (east Galicia), where the main branches of the Pikholz families lived, but we knew of no Pikholz who actually lived in Czortkow. Mendel is a very rare Pikholz name and of course I had no way of knowing if Chaim was originally part of his name, or if it had been added later due to illness – a common phenomenon. (In fact, my own grandfather, born Mendel Pickholz, had Chaim added to his name around the time I was born.)
To tell the truth, my interest in pursuing this lead was more to identify the man himself, rather than any insurance benefits, but things don’t always end up the way they begin.
While I was at it, I searched for additional Pikholz descendants in the ICHEIC database, using variant spellings and wildcards and eventually turned up two others: Chaim Pickholz Muhlrak (sic) and Izrael Isser Pickholz vel Kupferschmied, both of whom bought their policies from Generali in "Skala." The fact that both these men were listed with double surnames made it impossible to find them without a wild card search, because a simple “Pickholz” search was not considered a match. But those same double surnames made it easy to identify the men themselves and to contact their nearest surviving relatives.
Chaim Pickholz of Skalat (not Skala, of course) was the son of Moses Pikholz and Chancie Muhlrad and I know the six grandchildren of his brother. There was no one closer who survived the Holocaust. I helped them file a claim and after considerable hemming and hawing about non-payment of premiums, Generali offered the cousins a settlement of $3354.34, which I believe they accepted and received.
Izrael Isser Kupferschmid had a Pikholz mother and a Pikholz wife, so the identification was easy. In his case, I know the two granddaughters of his wife’s brother. I helped them file a claim and Generali acknowledged that he had had two twenty-year policies with them, both issued in 1929. One they claimed was invalid and for the other they offered the princely sum of $1462.16. I believe that the sisters took what was offered and did not appeal the decision regarding the second policy.
In neither case did ICHEIC play any role that we could discern. The claims were filed with ICHEIC but all the subsequent correspondence came from Generali.
But Chaim Mendel was another story entirely. We simply had no idea who he was. One Pikholz descendant in the US knew that her grandmother had a brother – Shoil ben Aryeh Leib Pikholz – who lived not far from Czortkow and that this uncle had made aliyah sometime after WWI, leaving two grown sons in Galicia. No one knew anything about these two sons, so I suggested she file a claim, because if this Chaim Mendel was Shoil's son, it would be easy enough to prove the relationship. I also filed a claim, based on the possibility that Chaim Mendel was part of the Pikholz family in neighboring Budanow and I thought at the time that this Budanow family might be closely related to my own. (We have never been able to find living descendants of the Budanow family itself.)
These two claims were pretty weak, but our purpose was to get a file open and to learn who Chaim Mendel was. ICHEIC's rules stated that even if the insurance company rejected a claim, they had to show documentation and that, we figured, would tell us who Chaim Mendel was.
So on 9 December 2003, I filed my claim and on 17 November 2004 ICHEIC in London informed me that it had been submitted to Generali for their attention. On 9 August 2005 (twenty months after my filing), Generali informed me that they had no life insurance policy that fit the information I had given them. Generali invited me to appeal to ICHEIC.
By this time I had learned that there was likely no Mendel in the Budanow Pikholz family and that this family was not closely related to my own, so the entire basis for my original claim was invalid. But I still wanted to identify Chaim Mendel, so I pushed on.
In my appeal, dated 26 August 2005, I reminded ICHEIC that according to their own rules, the claimant is entitled to see any relevant documents and protested that this rule was not being honored. On 21 September, ICHEIC sent the appeal to Generali and on 24 October Generali rejected the appeal, once again without showing any relevant documents. This time they said I had thirty days to request an arbitrator.
In my request for arbitration, dated 7 November, I reviewed all that I knew about the eleven Pikholz descendants named Mendel born before 1920, and suggested that the best candidate would be Mendel Liebergal, the son of Sara Pikholz and Moshe Liebergal of Skalat, who was born in 1890. In my petition I reminded ICHEIC that according to their website "ICHEIC's mission is to identify, settle, and pay individual claims" and I pointed out that if they would simply tell me when and where Chaim Mendel was born and who his parents were, I could help them fulfill their mission.
On 15 December 2005, Generali informed ICHEIC that they rejected my claim once again and "there is nothing further to add." On 21 December, ICHEIC informed me of Generali's decision and on 13 January 2006 I wrote back, telling them what I thought of them and their charade.
On 2 March 2006, Generali write that "all possible explanations regarding this claim have already been provided" and that again they "have nothing further to add with respect to the appeal in question." On the matter of showing relevant documentation, I may as well have been talking to the walls.
The arbitrator saw the material on 19 June 2006 and on 23 June I was informed that I had fourteen days to reply to Generali's "last word."
On 20 July 2006, Mark Halpern of JRI-Poland sent me a sneak prevue of the newest Skalat records (births for 1902-05) in the form of an Excel file, this in my capacity as town leader for Skalat for JRI-Poland. And there in 1902 was the birth of Chaim Mendel Pickholz, born in nearby Kaczanowka to Josef Pickholz of Kaczanowka and Bertha Schwebel of Czortkow.
I knew that Josef and Bertha had three sons. Abraham who was born in 1900 and died in 1901, Yitzhak (1906-1977) who was buried in New Jersey and Munio, whose name I knew from a submission to JewishGen's Family Tree of the Jewish People by a Schwebel relative. Munio must be Chaim Mendel. I had assumed that Munio was a nickname for Moshe, because that was the case with another Skalat-area Pikholz. I learned later that I was not the only one who made that mistake.
Yitzhak – who went by the name Irwin in the US – had no children, but as recently as 2000, his wife had been alive. Back then, I had found Else Pickholz in the phone book and had written to see who she was. I received a response from her nephew, Len, who said that she was Irwin's widow, that they had no children and that Irwin had a brother killed in the Holocaust, but she knew nothing more about the family. Or more likely, she no longer remembered anything about Irwin's family.
But this was 2006 and Else was no longer in the phone book. So I called the cemetery in New Jersey, where I learned that the other half of Irwin's double grave was unoccupied. They wouldn't tell me more, but gave me the number for the burial society. The woman at the society found my inquiry rather suspicious, but promised to pass a message to the family. Soon after, I had an email from Len, telling me that Else was ninety-five years old and that he was handling her affairs. He too regarded me with a bit of suspicion at the outset.
I faxed ICHEIC with all this news and advised them that from here on, they should consider Else to be the claimant, although I would continue working with them (or perhaps against them) on her behalf.
Of course, I immediately ordered Chaim Mendel's birth record from Warsaw. In the meantime, Len provided Irwin's birth certificate and marriage certificate showing the same parents as Chaim Mendel and demonstrating Else's relationship. On 7 August I faxed Len's documents and power of attorney to the arbitrator, together with Irwin's application for Social Security (SS-5) which showed his parents' names and his birthplace in his own hand – a document which I had acquired some years earlier.
When I left for the Conference in New York, I had not received an acknowledgement from ICHEIC's arbitrator for any of my new material. During the Conference, I consulted with others on the subject, particularly with Sidney Zabludoff, who had extensive ICHEIC experience and who thought I had a good chance for a hearing and a favorable ruling, despite the fact that I was presenting new material after the appeal process had formally ended.
By now, things were falling into place. I did a search on my database for Czortkow and found two Pages of Testimony submitted in 1956 by Mrs Genia Stock of Kiryat Motzkin. Mrs Stock had taken it upon herself to submit Pages for everyone she could remember from her home town of Probuzhna, including Moshe Pickholz, his wife Sarah and their three children – Freide, Josef and Avigdor. I had a copy of these Pages from the very first days of my Pikholz research and in fact in my file of 325 Pages of Testimony, the one for Sarah is numbered "1." I had spoken with the eighty year old Mrs. Stock at the time (1998) and she told me that she knew little of this Moshe, except that he had come from Czortkow, but his wife was from Probuzhna, so she remembered her family. She did recall that he had a brother someplace outside Galicia – maybe Vienna. My strongest impression of my conversation with Mrs Stock was that she was sorry that she was able to submit Pages of Testimony for only 975 of the nearly twelve hundred Jews of Probuzhna, and in that she felt that she had failed the others.
I suspected that Mrs Stock had known "Munio" Pickholz and had assumed him to be Moshe, just as I had. She had the 1902 year of birth and his father's name Josef.
Sarah's maiden name was not listed, but her parents were identified as Avigdor and Miriam. Mrs Stock had submitted two other Pages for people with these parents, both with the surname Klinger, so I guessed that Sarah may have been Klinger as well.
Mrs. Stock testified that the family were killed in Belzec in 1942.
On 17 September, I notified the arbitrator that I now had Chaim Mendel's birth record in hand and informed him the precise date and house number. I also told him that I believed he lived in Probuzhna and that his wife and children were Sarah Klinger and Freide, Josef and Avigdor. I also reminded him that ICHEIC had not acknowledged receiving any of my new information since July.
On 19 September, I received an email message from ICHEIC tellig me that the arbitrator needed further information and clarifications, particularly regarding the changes I had made in the claim. (A fully reasonable request, under the circumstances.)
My 21 September faxed reply summarized the entire claim from beginning to end and included a copy of the birth record – all of which ICHEIC duly forwarded to Generali for comment on 24 October, advising them that they had ten days to respond.
On 13 December I reminded ICHEIC that Generali's ten days had long passed.
On 27 December Generali sent me a copy of the policy, confirming that Sary Klinger was Chaim Mendel's wife, and offering a low five-figure settlement in the name of Else Pickholz for a twenty-five year policy issued in 1937. They said that I had three business days to advise them if I was withdrawing the appeal. ICHEIC was closing their London offices on 31 December and it was suddenly urgent to close all their files.
I checked the math with Sidney Zabludoff, Len accepted Generali's surrender on his aunt's behalf and I withdrew the appeal. Len received the check in February 2007.
Sometimes the good guys prevail. I would be remiss if I did not mention the moral support and advice I received along the way from Tom Venetianer of http://groups.yahoo.com/group/h-justice. I have not been successful in locating Mrs Genia Stock to tell her the full story and I suspect she has passed on.
On this occasion, we pause to remember Chaim Mendel (Munio) ben Yosef
and Beila (Bertha) Pickholz, his wife Sarah bat Avigdor and Miriam Klinger
and their three young children, Freide, Josef and Avigdor. May God
avenge their blood.