I'm going to start this story with a bit of mishpachtologia, Prager family history. I hope, dear reader, that it's not going to bore you too much . . . and you never know, it may even prove relevant to the another section of the story. Perhaps.
My grandmother, Fanny or Feige was one of, I believe, five children, four girls and a boy, the progeny of the saintly Rabbi Avraham haLevi Prager, my great grandfather, Av Beth Din (head of the rabbinic court) and the Head of the Talmudic Academy of Topolcany in western Slovakia.
The oldest of my great aunts, Esti, married a man called Shlomo Gelley, a student of my great grandfather. They in turn had four children, a girl and three boys. The Gelleys were in the business of supplying grain for horse feed. In fact they were the largest supplier in all of Europe at the outbreak of World War Two. This success may have had negative consequences for some family members, as shall become apparent.
After the passing of my great uncle in 1935, his eldest son Ali (Avraham, named after his grandfather -- there were also Ali/Avraham cousins in the other families) took over the running of the business. My father, Ali's first cousin, as well as other family members, worked in this business.
Apparently horses were still important to the German war machine in the early forties, so when they conquered Slovakia, including Topolcany, in 1943, they were intent to maintain the Gelley agricultural business for their own benefit. Ali was retained as manager.
After quelling the Slovak partisan uprising of 1944, the few remaining Jews of Slovakia were deported, murdered, exterminated by the Nazis. Even then, Ali was kept "alive" by the Nazi enemy to continue his vital enterprise. Of course, on the day the accursed pulled out of Topolcany, they longer needed Ali -- his reward for services faithfully rendered, a bullet to head as they made their escape from before the oncoming Russian Red Army.
One Friday, about twelve years ago, I return home from the swimming pool and Jill says "there's a lady who has already phoned three times for you. It seems she desperately wants to speak to you. She claims to be some kind of long lost cousin of yours, and she really wants to get to know us . . . ."
Great! Jill and I both really like getting to know "new" family members -- we both have some really nice and interesting people in our closets -- this was exciting, a long lost cousin -- it's been years now since I last found one.
So I dial Renke's phone number..
"Shalom Renke, this is Menachem Kuchar. How are we related?"
Renke's father was one of the three Gelley brothers. She was his only (surviving? she didn't elaborate) offspring. She must have been quite young during the war -- when we spoke she was in her early sixties. She didn't indicate how she survived, or what was the fate of her parents. She had lived in Ramat Gan for many years and her Hebrew was excellent. I have the impression she was not married, and possibly never had been.
Small talk dispensed with quickly. "Menachem, I have been looking for you for a while, and I'm so relieved to finally have located you." Wow, she loves me already. I was going to suggest a cousins' get-together lunch on Sunday in Tel Aviv.
"There's quite a bit of money at stake here and I really need to get hold of it." Cool! She really does love me! "You must ring this lawyer in Yerushalayim. Her name is Elisheva -- I'm paying her lots of money. Please, please, do it first thing on Sunday morning. This is urgent, so please don't delay.
"Nice talking to you cousin. Shabbat Shalom." Click (we still had a mechanical phone).
Well cousin Renke, nice talking to you as well.
"How's your new cousin, Nach?" Well frankly, I don't know -- well I'm not really sure.
On Sunday: Hello, Elisheva. My name is Menachem Kuchar.
Oh great, I've been waiting for your call. You're nearly the last one.
The last one! The last what? Who are the others, other than Renke of course?
I'll take an interlude to insert some historical background, some of which I was aware before the above incident, from general knowledge, the news, etc. I hope what I am telling you is historically accurate and I apologise in advance if I misrepresent any person or organisation. I am happy to make corrections if necessary.
Assicurazioni Generali is a large European insurance concern. Founded in the Mediterranean Italian city of Trieste in 1831 by Giuseppe Lazzaro Morpurgo, a Jewish scholar who successfully gathered around himself a group of key leaders in the Jewish community in the city in addition, economy-related people. The company, being located in the major port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, just over the Slovenian border, rapidly grew in importance, to become one of the largest insurance operators in Italy and Central Europe, opening many branch offices.
Franz Kafka worked for nearly a year (1st November, 1907 to 15th July, 1908) at the Generali office in Prague. (I just threw in this irrelevant fact because my extended families' business would have gone through this office and also to let you know that Wikipedia and Answers.com are amazing, almost indispensable, aids to my writing.)
Over time, the Jewish character and shareholding of the company was greatly been diluted, eventually to the point of irrelevance.
Throughout the first part of the twentieth century, however, though no longer "Jewish", the emerging European Jewish middle class "trusted" Generali with their savings and insurance plans -- more than any other insurer, of which by now there were a number operating in Europe. The Jews regarded Generali as "one of their own".
But the trust was sorely betrayed. After the second world war, read the Holocaust, Generali refused to pay out any claims by beneficiaries in the absence of Death Certificates. Using this and other evasive techniques, Generali continued to sit on, and of course benefit from, the money of murdered Jews.
This situation continued until 1997 when Generali moved to take a controlling stake in the major Israeli insurer, Migdal. (Generali had been one of the founding partners in Migdal in 1934.) There were many protests here in Israel, and also by survivor groups worldwide, challenging the morality of a company refusing to pay valid insurance claims, to control a large and important player in the Israeli economy.
Eventually, in exchange for the regulator's acquiescence to the acquisition, Generali agreed to set up a fund of I can't remember how many millions of dollars, to be distributed to valid claimants. The fund is supervised by an Israeli parliamentary committee. Other than providing computerised records going back many years, and of course the cash, Generali was out of the picture re the distribution of funds.
As is often the case with political appointments, the committee supervising the disbursement was not easy to deal with, formulating new obstacles, all in the name of fairness. But money did start to flow. One of the early issues was the true value of policies in current currency. Initially the committee was not prepared to pay linkage, only the nominal value of policies. Eventually they agreed to pay a linkage factor of ten, a big improvement, but still well below true market value. I understand a large sum of money remains in the fund and I don't know where it will end up after the claims period is over -- but I have a fertile imagination (which I probably don't need to exercise too much on this problem! Any guesses?)
The Gelley family had a number of policies with Generali. Specific to our story, each of the four Gelley siblings had equivalent life cover. Three (other than Ali) have living descendents, and each set of beneficiaries received 100,000 smakeroonies. The "problem" was what was to be done with the childless Ali's payout.
It was decided (I did not know initially by whom) that the three sets of beneficiaries would each receive 25%. That covered 75% of the stake. The fourth quarter was to be divided between Ali's widow and . . . me! :-)
I had heard of Ali and his demise from my father. But I didn't know too much about his family. One of the Gelley families I knew because most of them ended up in Australia (discovering them is another long, lost cousin story which occurred much earlier in my life). I "met" Renke last Friday. But how did I, or in reality my father (my brother and I are his legal heirs) get into this picture?
I assumed Ali, being childless, wrote my father, his best mate, into his will. I didn't ask at first. What did immediately became apparent was that none of Ali's money could be touched until all beneficiaries were located. And I was the second last one to come on board. There were twenty-three of us, most of whom were already located in the disbursement of the other three policies. Renke could not get any of Ali's money (25,000 smakeroonies for her directly) without me, hence her search high and low to pinpoint me.
And the last missing family member . . . Miriam, Ali's wife.
Piecing it together . . . my father, having tragically lost [they too were murdered] his wife and daughter in the Holocaust, was engaged to marry the widowed Miriam. When my mother's sister, Bozsi Sas, and my father's cousin, Jana Gottshall, tried to set them up together in Prague in 1946, although my mother was interested, my father indicated that he was already spoken for.
As events would have it, Miri decided to try greener pastures and left Czechoslovakia for the United States. However, a Czech court, I guess back in 1946, allocated Ali's assets to Miriam and to my father. [Any other assets were 'lost' when the communists came to power in 1947, nationalising all assets.]
Hence, here I am. But where is Miri?
Using the memory of our story's characters combined with the new power of Web, we set out to trace Miri's movements. She was no longer alive, but had indeed found green pastures, marrying a very wealthy American Jewish gentleman. This union also failed to produce any offspring. Thus there no "new" heirs in the story.
I asked Renke if she had had any contact with her aunt, specifically if she had a contact address. "Yes, I know the name of the street in which she lived." I thought we were getting somewhere now -- we didn't even know her married surname. "Yes, she lived in New York, in a street, I don't know the number, but it's called Fifth Avenue!"
We eventually overcame all the obstacles, and everyone including yours truly and Renke received a payout. Thank you Elisheva.
"By the way Elisheva, I can't believe that may maternal grandfather didn't have an insurance policy. He was a businessman and his wife was a very astute businesswomen. Could you possibly check?"
And, yes, his wasn't worth as much as Ali's, but grandpa came good too!
Perhaps I should check with Elisheva again -- she said they were adding more names from the archives to the active database all the time.
Menachem Kuchar, 30th March, 2009
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