In the twilight before the Holocaust swept Europe, insurance agents roamed village to village selling policies to Jews who soon would be packed into cattle cars destined for Nazi death camps.

Now, more than 50 years after the crematoria at Auschwitz grew cold, long-overdue settlements on those policies may be closer, thanks to a campaign by American insurance regulators.Deborah Senn, who chairs the National Association of Insurance Commissioners' Holocaust Insurance Issues Working Group, said the potential payout could be in the billions of dollars.

"It's an incredible amount of money," Senn said. "The World Jewish Congress has estimated a minimum of $10 billion in 1945 dollars in lost assets."

Indeed, settlements could dwarf the hundreds of millions of dollars in "Nazi gold" looted from doomed Jews that Swiss banks recently acknowledged had been deposited in their vaults during World War II.

However, at best a fraction of the estimated 140,000 Holocaust survivors living in the United States will collect. The destruction of war, the death camps and the passage of time have made the task of proving inheritance a daunting one.

Claims trickling in to insurance commissioners' offices nationwide only occasionally include documentary proof. More often they range from a note upon which a victim scribbled a policy number to mere recollections of long-ago conversations.

"It is, indeed, `this many years later.' And records are not available that would have been many years ago," said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the New York-based World Jewish Congress. "Records were subject to the vagaries of war and were destroyed.

"It's a profound moral issue . . . The Nazis were the greatest mass-murderers of all time, and they also undertook . . . the greatest robbery of all time.

"(But) the hurdles are not really so much technical here as they are political and moral," Steinberg added. "They can be overcome if the insurance companies have the willingness to do so."

However, insurers have been reluctant to open their policyholder files to NAIC auditors. Four major companies that operated in Holocaust-era Europe have drawn the association's attention in particular: Winterthur and Basler Leben, both based in Switzerland; Italy's Assicurazioni Generali and German insurance giant Allianz A.G.

All four companies operate or have subsidiaries in the United States. So far, only Allianz has tentatively agreed to open its records, under the auspices of German insurance regulators. The NAIC is awaiting a formal invitation from Bonn.

"Our board of management decided this is an important issue and we need to be as open as possible," said Christopher Worthley, Allianz's spokesman in Munich. "We've been in discussions with the commissioners."

Last year, Allianz opened a help line for Holocaust insurance inquiries. So far, the company has paid six settlements of up to 10,000 marks (about $7,000-$8,000) each.

Senn, Washington state's insurance commissioner, said Allianz's guarded openness is encouraging, but wholesale settlements still are a long way off.

"We're a step closer, but not close enough," she said. "We've had a lot of foot-dragging by the companies."

Assuming the remaining insurers eventually open their records, commissioners still must locate potential heirs and sufficient evidence to warrant payments.

New York, with nearly 15,000 survivors listed by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and California (about 6,400) can expect the largest number of claims.

But even in Utah, with just 15 registered survivors, state Insurance Commissioner Merwin Stewart admits he hasn't made much progress: "Our effort in Utah is to discover, if we can, if there are any Holocaust survivors who have insurance policies. I have none so far."

Stewart has enlisted the aid of Rabbi Frederick Wenger of Salt Lake City's Congregation Kol Ami, who hopes publishing information about the Holocaust insurance issue in a synagogue newsletter will bring some response.

Complicating the task, Wenger said, is that many Holocaust survivors have a deep-seated mistrust of government, while others have long since abandoned their Jewish roots.

"I have no idea how many there will be, who is eligible," Wenger said.

Many of the potential heirs - for reasons ranging from loss of faith to generations of intermarriage - no longer consider themselves Jewish, he said.

"I run into people all over town who say, `I had a grandparent who perished in the Holocaust.' That's all it takes to qualify."

In its meeting during the NAIC convention, the working group will discuss how best to bundle the thousands of claims expected. The panel also may adopt a uniform claims kit to be used by all the states' insurance commissioners, and explore possible talks with their European counterparts.

The 80-nation World Jewish Congress will closely monitor the process.

"We hope this sheds light on a very tragic historical period that will lead to very practical results. We want both moral and material restitution," Steinberg said.

"Ultimately, we want the truth, that history is written correctly so we can all have an honorable future."