For Americans and most Diaspora Jews, Israel is not the first place that comes to mind when discussing Holocaust-era restitution. For years the focus has been on property, bank accounts and insurance policies looted in Eastern Europe by the Nazis or taken over by local residents whose Jewish neighbors never came back from the death camps.
But few know that $300 million of assets in Israel are still waiting to be claimed by heirs of Holocaust victims. The assets, bought by European Jews, include real estate, safety deposit boxes, bank accounts and stocks — all from pre-independence Israel. The Israeli company in charge of locating the owners believes many heirs of the original owners who died in the Holocaust may be residing in North America.
“Everyone should log on to our website and check if they are legal heirs of family members who purchased assets before being sent to the crematoriums,” said Israel Peleg, CEO of Hashava, the Holocaust restitution company of Israel.
In response to a new campaign by Hashava, American interest in searching for assets in Israel has seen a significant uptick. In 2012 so far, 220 American individuals and families have filed requests for information, compared to 107 in 2011. Not all of those who found initial indications that that their family held assets will be verified as legal heirs, since the process of inquiry is extensive. But for heirs in Israel, in America and around the world, the process has led to the restitution of property whose worth has ranged from stocks worth several thousand dollars to apartment buildings, farmland and even several buildings in Tel Aviv valued at over $1 million.
Many heirs did nothing except answer a notification from the restitution company, since Hashava performs its own searches to locate the owners. “I’m like the person from the lottery,” said Elinor Kroitoru, head of the group’s research and information division. Her responsibilities include contacting individuals who have no idea they are heirs of Holocaust-era assets in Israel and informing them about the unexpected inheritance.
Hashava was founded in 2006 following a report by an Israeli national inquiry committee set up in 2000 to examine how the state was dealing with assets of European Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The Knesset law that established the organization tasked Hashava with locating assets and finding the heirs that owned them. Unclaimed funds are used by the organization for the welfare of Holocaust survivors living in Israel and for Holocaust commemoration through education.
“It is all about property bought by Zionists before World War II, who believed in the Zionist vision,” said Peleg. “Some had planned to move to Israel, and others simply thought it was a good investment.”