The years have not dimmed Frances Irwin’s memory of when the Nazis came to the homes of her parents, grandparents and married brother in Konske, Poland, in 1939. They ordered them to turn over their valuables — their gold, their silver candelabras and menorahs, the “gorgeous, valuable pictures” on their walls and their diamond rings and earrings.
“Even my father’s shtreimel [hat] we had to give because it was fur,” Irwin, 80, of Midwood, Brooklyn, recalls.
After she walked out of the Auschwitz in 1945 weighing 60 pounds, Irwin said she learned that she was the only member of her family to survive. And the family’s homes and leather goods store were also gone.
“I never got back anything,” she said.
But now the State of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel have launched Project HEART (Holocaust Era Restitution Taskforce) to attempt to document the assets the Nazis stole from the Jews for which they have never been compensated. Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Agency’s chairman, said the eventual purpose would be to obtain “compensation for property looted, stolen or forcibly sold during the Holocaust.”
While the effort to return Jewish communal property in Poland has been ongoing since 2002, the Polish government is expected to permit for the first time the restitution of private Jewish property later this year.
Anya Verkhovskaya, who is overseeing the project’s implementation, said it is “not necessary to have evidence of property ownership to be eligible to apply. If individuals believe they owned or were beneficiaries of such property, they should fill out the questionnaire.”
At the same time, project personnel have begun combing archives in Europe and Russia to assemble a list of private property owned by Jews before the Holocaust, according to Bobby Brown, the project director.
“We want heirs to receive a modicum of justice,” he said. “For many survivors, it is an obsession — what was taken from them. Parents who had property would have left it to their children, so we now are involving the second generation to become active in this fight. And every group that deals with Holocaust issues we want as our partners.”
Asked about those who say the project is only raising the expectation of survivors, Brown replied: “We are giving hope to those who lost hope. Is raising one’s expectation a reason for not doing anything?”
“It’s inexcusable that this wasn’t done 20 years ago,” he added.
The questionnaire may be found at http://www.heartwebsite.org. Operators will also take the information by phone. For English speakers, the toll-free number is 1-800-584-1559.