Project HEART, the Israeli government’s ambitious Holocaust-era restitution project designed to compensate survivors and their heirs for property lost during the Holocaust, is in danger of ending or being seriously diminished, The Jewish Week has learned.
A budget shortfall has already meant that the project’s office in Milwaukee, Wis., was forced to cease operations Jan. 1. The office, located at A.B. Data, a direct marketing company, has processed the nearly 200,000 claim forms that survivors and heirs have filed since Project HEART began in February 2011.
Funding for the Project HEART, an initiative of the Israeli government in partnership with Jewish Agency for Israel, was provided in 2009 following the government’s 2007 decision to get involved in restitution efforts. That money will be depleted May 31 and the project has thus far not been funded for the next fiscal year.
Sources close to Project HEART told The Jewish Week that Israel’s Ministry for Pensioner Affairs had initially funded Project HEART (Holocaust-Era Asset Restitution Taskforce). But not enough money has been budgeted for the next fiscal year and other ministries are being asked to contribute for a total of about $2 million.
Neither Pensioner Affairs Minister Uri Orbach nor Finance Minister Yair Lapid responded to an email from The Jewish Week seeking comment.
In the meantime, the efforts of Project HEART in conjunction with the office of New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli may be about to bear fruit for as many as 1,500 Holocaust survivors and heirs.
At the request of Project HEART, DiNapoli’s Office of Unclaimed Funds crosschecked the names of Project HEART claimants with the database of 28 million unclaimed accounts maintained by New York State’s Office of Unclaimed Funds. The office — which holds money from dormant bank accounts, uncashed checks or insurance checks — and found 3,000 matches. Based on a follow-up search of those individuals, a spokeswoman for DiNapoli said the office has narrowed the list to 1,500.
“We will be contacting these people beginning next week to confirm that they are the rightful owners of the unclaimed assets,” she said.
Sources told The Jewish Week that Project HEART had also planned to meet with DiNapoli and other state officials to discuss what action can be taken to convince an Austrian bank to open its books and pay the dormant accounts of Holocaust victims.
The accounts had been opened in several Hungarian banks prior to the Holocaust. After the war, the banks refused requests to acknowledge those accounts, and within the last five years the Austrian bank acquired them.
“The Austrian bank is licensed to do business in New York State,” said one source. “We have a claim against the banks it absorbed, and when you acquire a bank you get its assets as well as its liabilities.
“If it is still possible to get the Austrian bank to review and compensate living survivors and their heirs — we feel that bank should have its feet held to the fire.”
There are numerous other efforts Project HEART has initiated and that are also about to come to fruition.
Armed with a bundle of claims it has collected, Project HEART began approaching European countries in which private property was lost seeking compensation for those families. Within the last year, meetings have been held with officials of Poland, Croatia, Macedonia, Austria, Germany, France, Romania, Lithuania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the European Parliament and the Ukraine.
Project HEART’s delegation to Poland included Rafi Eitan, the former minister of Pensioner Affairs, and Bobby Brown, Project HEART’s executive director.
“Issues of property rights and Holocaust survivor rights were discussed with Polish leaders,” said one source. “The talks were well received and Project HEART is hopeful that there will be a breakthrough in Holocaust rights in the near future.”
Project HEART initially reached out to New York State Comptroller DiNapoli in the belief that European Jews in the beginning of World War II might have deposited money in Swiss banks that was then transferred to their New York branches. Although much of that money was transferred back to Europe after the war, it is believed that funds belonging to Holocaust victims and survivors remained in New York branches. Those funds were later turned over to the Comptroller’s Office do to inactivity.
DiNapoli’s office set up a special webpage for those who believe they may be the rightful owners to unclaimed funds — www.osc.state.ny.us/ouf/holocaust.htm.
Anya Verkhovskaya, Project HEART’s project director in Milwaukee, pointed out that many European Jews deposited money directly into New York banks “because New York was such a hot area and because a lot of Jewish families in western Europe had relatives or people they knew in New York.”
In addition, she said, European Jews “did limited traveling and wanted to keep money safe in New York. And there were some New Yorkers who were visiting Europe and got stuck in the Holocaust.”
“We might not be talking about a lot of people,” Verkhovskaya said. “But the justice we could bring to these families is not measurable — it is a life changing closure. If we could help a few families, it would really be groundbreaking.”
Sources said that should only limited funding be forthcoming to keep Project HEART alive, the U.S. operation might be closed as a cost-saving measure and all claims processing would then be done in Israel.
“They built the system and have the software and were doing a remarkably good job,” said a source of A.B. Data. “Now they want us to bring it all here. … It’s all in a state of flux.”
Verkhovskaya said she is “not privy to all of the details” regarding a possible move of the operations to Israel.
“We’ve successfully operated on the ground, processing from the U.S. claims from 137 countries around the world,” she said. “We stand by to offer whatever service we can. I will remain with A.B. Data but we will have a team available to got Israel if required to help set up whatever needs to be done there. We’re on standby, ready to do what needs to be done.”
Since it started Project HEART has been asked survivors and their heirs to fill out claim forms detailing as best they can the type of property they lost in the Holocaust for which they received no restitution. In particular, the group is seeking claims for private property that was located in countries that were controlled by the Nazis or Axis powers at any time during the Holocaust; private property that belonged to Jews as defined by the Nazi/Axis racial laws; and private property that was confiscated, looted or forcibly sold by Nazi forces or Axis powers during the Holocaust.