A recent ad in The New York Times generated dozens of restitution applications in the Israeli government’s quest to locate the heirs of Jews who invested in pre-state Israel in the 1920s and 1930s.
At the same time, the Jewish Agency for Israel, a quasi-governmental body, has launched the Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce known as Project Heart, an international effort to locate Jewish victims of the Holocaust whose property was confiscated, looted or forcibly sold under Nazi rule. Last week, it posted on the Internet a searchable database of more than 650,000 Holocaust-era property records (www.heartwebsite.org).
Although survivors expressed satisfaction with these restitution efforts, they also noted that they come 72 years after the start of World War II.
“This is great, except it’s very late,” said Ivar Segalowitz, a member of the executive board of the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors (NAHOS), at a press conference here announcing Project Heart.
Elie Rubinstein, executive director of The Blue Card, which provides ongoing financial aid to survivors in need, said he feared it would needlessly raise the hopes of survivors because there could be “extended delays” before property is returned.
But Bobby Brown, executive director of Project Heart, said he would rather raise expectations than lead survivors to believe the matter is being swept under the rug.
“We should have started 40 years ago,” he conceded. “In Eastern Europe, the majority of places [that took Jewish property] paid nothing — and most of European Jewry lived there.”
He said it is his group’s desire to “list every piece of property for which people declare they never received compensation.”
By the end of the year, Brown said he expects the website to have posted one million pieces of Jewish-owned property in Eastern Europe, and three million pieces before the project ends. Although he said it is not possible to know how much, if anything, survivors and heirs will receive in compensation, he held aloft a necklace a non-Jewish Polish woman recently gave him. It belonged to a Jewish victim of the Holocaust who had left it for the woman’s grandmother in appreciation for the food she had hidden in the woods outside the entrance of Auschwitz.
“Every day she saw them [Jews] marched out and forced to work,” Brown said. “She was heartbroken. … Every night she cooked too many carrots and beets and put the extra in pots that she put in a child’s carriage and left in the woods, where the prisoners were allowed to relieve themselves. One day, a person left a small, jeweled necklace in one of the pots.”
In her remarks at the press conference, Esther Widman, executive vice president of NAHOS, spoke of her futile attempts to reclaim her parents’ property in Romania. She said that during a three-day visit to her family’s hometown in 1992, she bribed Romanian officials in order to make copies of documents showing some of the property her parents owned. “These papers represent the years of hard work of my father and mother,” she said.
Although she filed suit in Romania to recover the property, Widman said, she “never received an answer.”
The effort to help survivors and their heirs recover property invested in Israel started several years ago but only now has been expanded, using the secular press outside of Israel.
“Most if not all of the assets were purchased by Jews out of [a love for] Zionism or a belief that this was a good opportunity to invest in,” said Yaron Jacobs, chief executive officer of Israel’s official restitution agency, the Company for Location & Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets.
Since it first posted on the Internet four years ago the names of the more than 60,000 original purchasers of the investments — real estate, bonds, bank accounts and stocks — about 10 to 15 percent of the heirs have come forward to claim property valued at 40 million shekels or about $11.6 million. Another 800 million shekels or $232.5 million in assets remains unclaimed.
After blanketing Israel with notices that it was looking for the heirs of these investors, Jacobs said it was decided to look overseas. But ads last year in Jewish media in New York and in other cities with major Jewish populations proved disappointing.
“There was no real impact, so we decided to upgrade the level of approach to a wider crowd to enhance the possibility of people visiting our website,” Jacobs said.
He noted that the search for unclaimed assets would next turn to other parts of North America.