Disclosure of Unclaimed Properties Urged

By Nacha Cattan

Published March 21, 2003, issue of March 21, 2003.
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As a young girl, Anita Hoffer spent hours on her grandparents’ laps listening to tales of their cosmopolitan lives in pre-war Berlin. They were thankful to escape Germany before the Holocaust. But as chicken farmers in Vineland, N.J., during the 1950s, Hoffer’s grandparents couldn’t help but pine for the furniture dealership they left behind.

“My grandmother was a society lady going to the operas in Berlin,” said Hoffer, now 69 and living in Boca Raton, Fla. “But later she was cleaning, excuse the expression, chicken s—t.”

Six decades later, Hoffer’s only evidence that her grandparents’ Mobel-Winterfeld furniture store ever existed are photos of a furniture truck and a clothes brush emblazoned with the company logo and a “humongous” blond-wood wardrobe salvaged before the war. After filing a property claim in 2000 with no results, Hoffer — herself a survivor thanks to the 1938 Kindertransport to Britain — had all but given up on retrieving compensation for the family business.

But recently, the national representative body of the British Jewish community has requested the disclosure of more than 8,000 unclaimed East German properties. This may give Hoffer the proof she needs to pursue her claim.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews made the request — in highly diplomatic terms — in a March 5 letter to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the official deed holders of unclaimed East German properties. The letter asked the large Jewish restitution body whether it would be possible to list some 8,089 so-called heirless properties on the Internet to aid the many claimants who hold no documentation of their lost houses and businesses.

“It appears that the Claims Conference has not made publicly available the list of these properties, some of which could well belong to Kindertransport victims living in the U.K.,” Board of Deputies director general Neville Nagler wrote in the letter to Claims Conference executive vice president Gideon Taylor. “We would very much hope that it might be possible to publish this information in order to enable this category of Holocaust victims to resolve this issue.” The Kindertransport whisked 10,000 Jewish and other children from the clutches of the Nazis to Britain in 1938 and 1939.

In addition, the British government has requested information about the East German properties from the German Foreign Ministry, according to Jeremy Cresswell, deputy chief of missions at the British embassy in Berlin. “One has a lot of sympathy for those trying to find properties of their families,” Cresswell told the Forward.

But a spokeswoman for the Claims Conference, Hillary Kessler-Godin, countered that although her organization never listed the properties, it widely publicized them and helped survivors and heirs to claim their homes and businesses as recently as 1998. Kessler-Godin said the Claims Conference has already paid out $170 million to private property owners and continues to accept applications. To handle future claims, she said, her organization has “a reserve of about 150 million euros,” or $159 million.

By its own account, the Claims Conference became the legal successor of 8,975 unclaimed and communal properties in the former East Germany according to a 1992 German law. It has so far generated $460 million from the sale of 1,597 of those unclaimed properties, according to its Web site. It allocates 80% of these funds to social welfare agencies to aid needy survivors worldwide. The other 20% goes to Holocaust education and other projects.

The Board of Deputies’ request comes at a time of heightened scrutiny by the American Jewish community of the way the Claims Conference allocates funds. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs passed a resolution last month calling on the Claims Conference to allocate all money only to destitute survivors, and not toward education, so long as survivors are in need. The Claims Conference is set to reexamine its allocations plan, according to Kessler-Godin.

Nagler told the Forward that he wrote to the Claims Conference after several survivors from the 10,000-strong Kindertransport to Britain approached him with complaints.

Hoffer, who is the president of the 160-member Kindertransport Association of Florida, said she thinks many of her peers and other child survivors have little or no documentation of property they left behind.

“The Claims Conference has the clout to get this information,” Hoffer said. “And it’s a crime if they don’t.”

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