Israel Moves On Holocaust-Era Assets

By Nathaniel Popper

Published July 16, 2004, issue of July 16, 2004.
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Just before the Nazis invaded Poland, Maurycy Moses Tempelhof, a resident of Lodz, bought about 1.25 acres of land just north of Haifa in what was then British-run Palestine. Tempelhof, his wife and two of his children died during the war, but one daughter, Isabelle, survived him. In search of her father’s property, Isabelle went to the Administrator General’s Office, a division of the Israeli Justice Ministry that took control of all unclaimed property after the war.

When Isabelle pressed her case in the 1950s, the family’s lawyer says, the Administrator General’s Office refused to return the property, which already had been put to agricultural use and has since blocked efforts by heirs even to gain more information about the valuable parcel near Israel’s northern port. So until very recently, the family gave up on the land. They are not alone.

A Knesset committee, chaired by Colette Avital of Labor, has been studying the problem of bank accounts and property that were abandoned during World War II in what is now Israel. The committee has not released any information yet, but it told the president of the main Israeli Holocaust survivors’ organization, Noach Flug, that the bank accounts alone might be worth $220 million.

Justice Minister Yosef Lapid is currently circulating a draft Knesset bill to address the problem, the first such effort from the executive branch. The legislation proposes that the government make an effort to find heirs for all the property and that it use any unclaimed assets to help survivors in Israel.

The legislation has been a long time coming. The Israeli press began probing the issue of Holocaust-era assets in Israel during 1996, at about the same time that the international campaign gathered steam for the release of Holocaust-era Swiss bank accounts. But while the Swiss agreed to return $1.25 billion in unclaimed depositor assets, similar progress has not been made in Israel.

Avital’s Knesset committee has been working on a report about the bank accounts since 2000. Repeatedly the report’s release has been blocked by the banks, which have taken issue with the interest and inflation rates proposed by Avital’s committee for payments.

Bank Leumi has been in the forefront of the financial community’s critique of Avital’s work. The bank says it will pay only a small portion of the $56 million that Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin has said the bank owes.

On the issue of land, which is said to be worth much more than the bank accounts, there is not even a report on the horizon. The Land Registry Office has ledgers documenting the ownership of all land in Israel, but the Administrator General’s Office and private real estate companies have blocked full access to the files.

Survivors trying to reclaim their family assets have come up against the same problems encountered by heirs to Swiss bank accounts. The banks and government agencies have requested documents proving ownership, but few Nazi victims retained such documentation through their time in concentration camps.

The current legislation, meant to ease many of the logjams, came only after lawyer Uri Huppert filed two lawsuits in February on behalf of the Templehof heirs and other relatives of Nazi victims. The defendants in the case include Lapid and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The slow movement of the authorities is coming to the forefront just as the Israeli government, led by Netanyahu, is stepping up its criticism of the Claims Conference for failing to act quickly enough to distribute property and heirless funds to survivors (Please see separate article, below).

In a statement accompanying the draft legislation, Lapid said: “This law is 50 years late because the heirs of the victims and those who fled the Holocaust should have received what their murdered relatives left them long ago.”

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