Thousands of American Jews have assets in Israel they don’t know about, according to a new Israeli campaign for the restitution of Holocaust victims’ property.
In the early-20th century, Jews from across the world invested in Palestine. They put money in Zionist enterprises there meant to develop the infrastructure for a future state. They bought real estate in the Holy Land. They deposited money in early Zionist banks. Then, many of the investors died in the Holocaust.
When survivors knew that family members who had perished had assets in Palestine, they claimed them. But when Holocaust victims had no close surviving relatives, or when relatives did not know of those investments, the assets largely went unclaimed.
For more than six decades after the Holocaust, little was done to locate the heirs of investors with outstanding assets. But in 2006, the Knesset passed a law requiring the establishment of a government-owned company to acquire such assets and to pass them on to their rightful owners. The company embarked on a campaign to find potential heirs, and also to encourage potential heirs to make themselves known.
Now, for the first time, the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets — widely known by its shortened Hebrew name, Hashava, which means ”restitution” — is calling upon American Jews to explore the possibility that they may be heirs to such assets. The company, in its rush to find potential heirs, has launched a $400,000 campaign that will run until the end of June.
“We are truly in a race against time,” Hashava’s chairman, Menachem Ariav, an 80-year-old survivor who lives in Upper Nazareth, told the Forward. “Every day, people who lived through the darkest era in Jewish history pass away. Often, they take with them information that can help us locate the beneficiaries of the assets we are looking to return to their rightful owners.”
Besides facilitating families’ efforts to locate assets, Hashava has ended the chaotic situation that swirled around the question of the current value of a Palestinian pound from the 1940s, the currency of Mandatory Palestine. Relying on economists’ calculations, the company has determined that heirs are legally entitled to approximately 560 New Israeli Shekels (about $145) for every Palestinian pound deposited in their deceased relatives’ accounts.
“We were approached by one man whose uncle deposited 700 pounds in the bank,” recalled Hashava’s CEO, Zvi Kanor. “When the family went to the bank in 1980, they said he was entitled to $25 [per Palestinian pound]. He decided not to take it and wait for its full value. We evaluated its real value and paid out NIS 380,000 [approximately $100,000].”
Kanor was referring to the story of Nathan Ber Goldstein, a Polish Zionist who deposited money in the Anglo-Palestine Bank — now Bank Leumi -— in 1933 and then died in the Holocaust. His nephew Shlomo Gonen of Ramat Gan and two other relations received the full inherence from Bank Leumi via Hashava last year.
In some cases, Hashava has reunited people with long-lost family members along with long-lost assets. In others, it has provided people with treasured non-monetary artifacts that it acquired during the paper chase to document an investment. “When you know that your grandfather died in Auschwitz, have no papers from his life, and then receive a paper with his actual signature, as some people have, this has great sentimental significance,” said the company’s project manger, Elinor Kroitoru.
Two years ago, Anna Fisher, a Moldova-born Israeli woman, was approached by Hashava with news that her brother Noach Kramer — who died in the Holocaust with his wife, Anna, and daughter Neuta — had left behind a bank account in Palestine. Fisher, now 97, also learned that she has family that she never knew about — relations of her late sister-in-law who live in Israel, with whom she shared the $20,000 inheritance. Interviewed by the Forward, Fisher’s daughter Sara Evanir, 74, said that the money was a big financial help to her mother, who lives in a retirement home on Kibbutz Gesher in northern Israel. “Before hearing from Hashava, she had no idea this money existed,” Evanir said.
Pressure for Holocaust-era assets in Israel to be passed on to their rightful heirs mounted in the 1990s, after politicians deemed it an anathema that the newly united German government was working to do so with regard to assets in Germany while no such initiative existed in Israel. At the start of the year 2000, the Knesset established a parliamentary investigative committee to identify assets located in Israel and pass them down to the deceased investors’ heirs.
The Knesset committee investigated the scope of assets in Israel that have not been passed along to their legal owners, and found that they include dormant bank accounts administered by Israeli banks, shares in local companies, the contents of safes and real estate assets held by various companies and agencies, including the state-run Israel Land Administration and the Justice Ministry’s guardian of unclaimed properties.
The largest holder of bank accounts was found to be Bank Leumi, which was established as the Anglo-Palestine Bank at the Second Zionist Congress of 1898. The bank’s objective then was to attract investment by Diaspora Jews and to offer loans to get Jewish farming and business ventures off the ground in Mandate Palestine.
The work of the committee led to passage of the 2006 law, which, in turn, led later that year to the establishment of Hashava. Since its inception, Hashava has come to control about NIS 800 million worth of assets, of which NIS 26 million have been paid out to inheritors, 90 percent in Israel and 10 percent in the Diaspora.
The company hopes to gain control of a further NIS 300 million worth of assets over the coming months, following arbitration proceedings with Bank Leumi to establish the size of the bank’s outstanding debt to the company. The two sides disagree on how much is owed, and, a year ago, Hashava sued the bank for NIS 305 million in restitution. The two sides have since agreed to enter into arbitration, which is expected to begin soon and to last about six months.
The new campaign invites Jews in North America to visit Hashava’s website (www.hashava.org.il/eng/), where assets are cataloged. The 55,000 entries are searchable by the names of investors in Hebrew or English, their city of residence, or the type of asset. When visitors find an asset appearing to belong to their family, they can complete an online form that will set in motion Hashava’s efforts to verify their claim. Visitors to the site are also invited to submit details of an asset they believe to exist that has not yet been listed by Hashava, so that if the asset comes to the attention of Hashava in the future, they can be informed.
When an heir successfully makes a claim, Hashava is entitled by Israeli law to take a commission of up to 2 percent, based on a sliding scale of the asset’s value.
Hashava expects that it will succeed in transferring about 15 percent of the identified assets to their rightful heirs. In view of the large amount expected to remain unclaimed, Israeli law states that each year, the company will use some of the assets to benefit Holocaust survivors living in Israel. The law led to the transfer of 127 million shekels (about $33.5 million) in 2010. This year, any survivor living on less than 3,700 shekels a month (about $1,000) is receiving 1,500 shekels (about $400) quarterly, and funds are also being transferred to nonprofit organizations that serve survivors.
Hashava’s campaign in America, which consists of media advertisements and posters in synagogues and community centers, got off the ground in April, following a similar campaign in Israel earlier this year. During the campaign in Israel, the Hashava call center reported receiving about 600 calls a day instead of the usual 40 calls. In addition, the number of new claims received weekly jumped from 20 to 120.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org