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These investments took the form of real estate in Tel Aviv and other cities, and in agricultural lands located in central and northern Israel. Investors also owned bank accounts and stocks of the Jewish Colonial Trust, which later evolved into the Anglo-Palestine Bank, and which is known today as Bank Leumi. After the Holocaust, these assets were held by the representative of the British Crown that ruled the area. But with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the new Israeli government and the Jewish National Fund took over the assets. It took 60 years until Israel recognized its responsibility for locating the legal heirs and returning their property to them.
The process began with building a database of all unclaimed assets, based on records of the Jewish Colonial Trust shares, of bank accounts, building and apartment deeds that were held by the JNF and of moveable assets such as Judaica and artworks. The list was then published on Hashava’s website and the public was invited to search and see whether family members owned property in pre-war Palestine. At the same time Hashava also worked backward from the assets to try and locate heirs who did not come forward.
The research process involved Jewish genealogical databases and information from the archives of Yad Vashem in Israel and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
To date, only $20 million of the $300 million in assets have been returned to heirs. Of the $300 million, Hashava has allocated an additional $100 million for helping Holocaust survivors living in Israel and for commemoration. According to Hashava’s data, some 10,000 restitution applications have been filed and 3,000 of those who filed have already had their assets returned.
But a 2009 report by Israel’s state comptroller criticized the organization for not meeting deadlines and for not being active enough in reaching out to potential heirs outside Israel. It was this criticism that prompted the campaign to spread the word to Jewish populations outside Israel, mainly in the United States. At the recent General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Hashava hosted an event aimed at introducing the operation to American Jewish communities. The event followed up on information that was sent to Jewish communal organizations in an effort to make community members aware of the chance they might be the heirs of assets in Israel they did not know existed.
“It is encouraging to see that our campaign created a buzz,” said Peleg, who expects the stream of inquiries from American Jews to grow as news about the organization spreads.
According to law, Hashava is scheduled to cease operation by 2022, at which point the assets would be either returned to the heirs or used for support of any remaining Holocaust survivors. But, despite having disposed of less than 10% of their assets, sources close to the issue have estimated that the company may not last more than another five years, because the major assets have already been located and investigations into locating the heirs are already under way.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org