By HCS Staff

Are there U.S. or European insurance companies that owe monies to relatives of those whom the Turks killed during the 1922 Smyrna and Asia Minor holocaust?

This year, Martin Marootian was among 12 plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit to reach a tentative $20 million settlement with New York Life. Marootian, 88, had hoped that the agreement, thought to be the first in connection with the often disputed massacre and open to claims from survivors worldwide, would bring more recognition to a catastrophe that hasn't been acknowledged by the federal government of the United States.

New York Life sold approximately 8,000 policies in the Ottoman Empire beginning in the 1880's, with fewer than half of those purchased by Armenians. The insurance company said that it had located about one-third of the policyholders, descendants of the original policyholders, to pay benefits. The rest of the policies have not been paid out because the remaining heirs have not been located.

Is it possible that there are Greeks descendants who are legally entitled to receive life insurance payouts from New York Life and other life insurance companies? Persons of Greek descent constituted a major segment of the population in Asia Minor the 1920's. In Constantinople and Smyrna, particularly, the Greek population were known to be members of a successful class of business merchants and likely to have purchased life insurance policies.

Turkey, a NATO ally of the U.S., rejects the genocide claims, insisting that Armenians were killed in civil unrest during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The Armenian plaintiffs, however, claimed that many members of their families, insured by New York Life, were killed in an act of genocide by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. A number of Armenian-American and Greek-American groups have lobbied state governments in the U.S., urging lawmakers and officials to recognize the genocide. In 2002, New York Governor George Pataki recognized genocide in the Ottoman Empire, specifically mentioning the Pontian Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians. Other states have followed suit, raising the total number of official bodies recognizing the genocide.

The insurance company settlement comes at a critical period in history for political affairs in the Balkans and the Middle East. Of particular import are two issues at the forefront of Greek and Greek-American relations: Cyprus has just joined the European Union amid ongoing occupation by Turkish troops; the Turkish government seeks candidacy for entry into the European Union. Both of these issues are affected by the genocides early in the twentieth-century, since Turkey steadfastly denies that any crimes against humanity took place in Smyrna or elsewhere. Moreover, she has attempted to coerce American lawmakers into refusing to recognize the genocide that has taken place.

On October 18, 2000, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) withdrew a resolution from the House floor just moments before a vote to recognize that the "killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish state constituted this century's first genocide," according to P.D. Spyropoulos of the American Hellenic Media Project. Spyropoulos continued to explain: "Turkish officials had threatened to impose anti-American trade sanctions, cancel billions of dollars in U.S. military and commercial contracts, open a second oil pipeline from Iraq, forbid the U.S. from using Turkish airbases to patrol northern Iraq, and establish closer economic and diplomatic ties with Saddam Hussein."

Many of the world's most respected thinkers and academicians and authors have begun to speak out about Turkish revisionist attempts. In 1988, over 150 of such prominent individuals as Yehuda Bauer, Israel Charng, Seamus Heaney, Deborah Lipschadt, Arthur Miller, and Kurt Vonnegut took a stand against Turkey's multi-million-dollar propaganda campaign by signing a petition to affirm that this "denial of genocide is a form of aggression. It continues the process of genocide. It strives to reshape history in order to rehabilitate the perpetrators and demonize the victims. It prevents healing of the wounds inflicted by genocide. Denying genocide is the final stage of genocide—it murders the dignity of the survivors and destroys the remembrance of the crime."

With the success of Marootian and his co-plaintiffs in the class-action suit, claims by other groups whose relatives once lived in Constantinople (Istanbul) during the Turkish Ottoman empire may be able to rely upon the precedence set by the Armenian community. Attorneys for the plaintiffs studied legal procedures followed by Jewish Holocaust survivors for compensation and death benefits claims and crafted legal strategies accordingly. Although Marootian's claim was strongest because of his indisputable documentation, he decided upon a class-action in order to assist other members of the Armenian community whose documentation may not have been as strong.

Ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, the presiding judge rendered a decision strictly on the basis of contractual law; the insurance companies had a contractual obligation to pay the death benefits to survivors of policyholders. But the success of the case has far broader implications: the claims lend additional weight to the fight for recognition of the Armenian and Greek genocides.

(Originally posted 10 May 2006; updated 19 September 2008)

Persons interested in learning whether or not relatives in Constantinople or Asia Minor may have purchased life insurance policies should contact HCS for additional information.

For more information about Greek history in Asia Minor--and also in Smyrna--HCS recommends reading additional articles in the Smyrna and Asia Minor section located within our extensive, permanent archives at Readers may also wish to read several excellent texts about Turkish pogroms in 1955 (Vryonis 2005-- and the Asia Minor Catastrophe (Housepian-Dobkin-- and Horton--

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