It amounts to a few needles in a very large haystack. But for aging Holocaust survivors and the heirs of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis, the painstaking work being carried out by the New York State Comptroller’s Office may yet pay dividends.
An initial search of the state’s unclaimed funds database has turned up “thousands” of matches against the names of 175,000 Holocaust victims and survivors. A further check is now being done to see if they truly match.
“Just because a guy on our list had the same name of someone in the database does not mean it is him,” explained Bobby Brown, director of Israel’s Project HEART (Holocaust-Era Asset Restitution Taskforce).
“Those names are now being cross-referenced to see they are a hit. If they all turn out to be hits, we are talking millions of dollars. We should know by June.”
The office of State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli concentrated the initial search of his database of more than 28 million unclaimed accounts on those obtained during the Holocaust era. DiNapoli’s efforts were first reported in The Jewish Week last August.
“We know people put money in Swiss banks [before World War II]; maybe they also put money in U.S. banks to protect it,” Brown explained.
Under New York State law, inactive or unclaimed bank accounts are turned over to the comptroller’s unclaimed funds account.
Should the further check result in a match, Brown said the survivor or their heir would be notified and asked to apply for the money.
In a statement, DiNapoli said that in addition to money from old bank accounts, the unclaimed funds account holds “un-cashed checks and insurance checks.”
“We should all do what we can to return to New Yorkers what is rightly theirs,” he added.
Brown said he is “excited about this project because we are getting huge cooperation. The funds we are looking for are from the Holocaust-era and they are the least computerized and the hardest to work with.”
The names the state is trying to match to its database come from 175,000 forms submitted to Project HEART by survivors and their heirs. Project HEART is an initiative of the Israeli government in cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel that seeks to help individuals obtain restitution for property that was confiscated, looted or forcibly sold during the Holocaust.
“We’re asking anyone in the world who had assets taken under Nazi anti-Jewish laws and who have not been compensated to fill out a form,” Brown said.
Project HEART has posted on its website 2.2 million pieces of property that were believed to be owned by Jews before the Holocaust. The site is a compilation of archives in the public domain http://heartwebsite.org/.
“This is the largest online archive ever built, and obviously it is just a drop in the bucket,” Brown said. “There is a huge amount of information still out there that we would like to add. …People might say their grandfather had a home in Krakow and now they can look for it on the list and perhaps even discover that he had a bank account.”
“Say we have 210 people who claim to have had accounts in a particular bank,” Brown continued. “We will go to the bank and ask them to work with us to pay these individuals their money. If they say no, we will sit down with New York State or whatever state they or their subsidiaries do business in to ask their help in getting the bank to cooperate. … We encourage people to do whatever they can to get their property back.”
He said also that although Austria had a restitution program, his office has received the names of 3,500 claimants who said they were never paid.
“We asked Austria to reopen the claims process and reconsider these claims,” Brown said. “Last month they said no. And we didn’t like the fact that those they paid received only 13 percent of the value of the property. They paid 19,000 people and they said they are not going to go back and pay these people more money.”
He said his organization plans to press the issue and that it may require legislation to reopen the restitution program in Austria.
“One person requesting this has no chance, but when we go in with 3,500 cases we have a stronger case. And we have the authority of the Israeli government.”
In a related development, survivors in Florida picketed the Allianz Golf Championship in Boca Raton for the third straight year earlier this month to protest what they claim is the giant insurance company’s failure to pay $2 billion in Holocaust-era insurance claims.
The German company insured Nazi facilities such as death camps — including Auschwitz, survivors claim.
Allianz has admitted its links to the Third Reich and has pledged to resolve all outstanding claims. Its director of government relations and public policy, Wolfgang Ischinger, promised to meet with the president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, David Schaecter, after the first year of protests.
His spokesperson, Sabia Schwarzer, told The Jewish Week in an e-mail this week that no such meeting was held because the group “decided to publish Wolfgang’s letter and an inflammatory response to it on its website, instead of following up with Wolfgang directly first.”
“Allianz didn’t believe that there would be a fruitful discussion between the groups after seeing that Wolfgang’s well-intentioned letter was totally mischaracterized,” she wrote.
The website posting in question said Ischinger’s “letter was politely worded but [was] highly offensive because it ignored the fundamental problem that Allianz failed to honor insurance policies that it sold to tens of thousands of Holocaust victims. The letter instead uses the company’s familiar Washington lobbying tactic of changing the subject, emphasizing Germany’s payments to Jewish slave laborers. …”