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Wanted: U.S. claimants of Holocaust-era assets in prestate Israel

NEW YORK (JTA) — In Israel, restituting Holocaust-era assets isn’t just about getting European countries, banks and insurance companies to pay up.

It’s also about finding the rightful heirs of thousands of prestate assets in Israel whose original Jewish owners perished during the Holocaust. These include dormant bank accounts, real estate, bonds and other assets purchased by European Jews before the war in prestate Israel either out of Zionist impulse or financial consideration.

Several years ago, after decades of withholding information, Israeli banks and other institutions began to come clean about the unclaimed prestate assets in their coffers, and in August 2006 the Israeli government established a mechanism to recover them for heirs. Money from any unclaimed assets would be spent on survivors.

But a couple of years into a broad effort to restitute those assets, Israel is having a hard time finding their legal owners.

“We’re trying to find their rightful heirs and do some justice 70 to 90 years later,” said Yaron Jacobs, CEO of the Company for the Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets, known by the Hebrew name Hashava, which means return. 

“In North America there are people who never heard about our company,” he said. “It’s our obligation, both legally and morally, to approach them and tell them about our activities.”

This spring, Hashava is running a major campaign in North America in an effort to capture the attention of American Jews and find some of the rightful heirs to the hundreds of millions worth of assets it has recovered.

The campaign marks a rarity in the Jewish world: An Israeli government body spending money in America with the hope of giving away millions of shekels to American Jews.

“Anyone who had a relative who was killed in the Holocaust is a potential claimant from us,” said Jeremy Ruden, the international relations officer for Hashava. 

“It’s really a problem that people don’t know that we’re out there,” he told JTA. “People do not connect Holocaust restitution with Israel. They don’t understand the history that Zionists in Europe invested in prestate Palestine through the British Mandate. People bought land, they bought stocks, they had bonds. They put money in banks. We’ve been trying any which way we can to get the word out there, and it’s been difficult.”

So far, the campaign has consisted mostly of newspaper ads, including a half-page advertisement in The New York Times. Later this year, Hashava will be holding events in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Toronto to call attention to its work.

While Hashava searches for legitimate claimants, it expects that 80 percent to 90 percent of the money ultimately will go unclaimed. Therefore, Hashava has been disbursing the unclaimed money to try to help survivors in their final years, doling out some $35 million annually.

The disbursements cover cash stipends to needy survivors, food assistance, psychological counseling, medicine and welfare programs. Before Passover, Hashava paid for handymen to visit survivors’ homes to help with repair projects. Some 11,000 survivors regularly receive assistance, according to the company.

In all, Hashava has spent about $100 million on survivors and restituted approximately $15 million to heirs.

At the same time, Hashava continues to negotiate settlements with Israeli institutions in a bid to recoup assets dormant since the Holocaust. Shortly after the company’s establishment, the Jewish National Fund began transferring unclaimed properties it had held in trust since 1946. In March, Hashava reached a $131 million settlement with Bank Leumi, Israel’s leading commercial bank.

Using lawsuits and negotiations to compel recalcitrant institutions to disclose their dormant Holocaust-era assets, Hashava has followed the model used to obtain restitution in Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe. And like the Claims Conference, which deals with heirless Jewish properties in the former East Germany, Hashava has distributed its assets between the rightful owners it can find and the survivors who need it.

But Hashava differs from the Claims Conference in two important respects.

One, the money Hashava gives out goes directly to survivors, including cash stipends. The Claims Conference gives to institutions, not survivors, any money it acquires from the sale of heirless assets. The institutions include Holocaust museums and educational programs.

Two, Hashava has an expiration date. By the Knesset law that established the company, Hashava must wrap up its activities and disburse all its remaining funds in the next eight years.

“We’re a very different kind of organization than the others: Hashava’s lifespan is limited,” Ruden said. “In another eight years the company will close and all the assets will be liquidated and given either to survivors or Holocaust memorials.”

(Hashava has more than 60,000 assets listed. To contact the company and find out more about making a claim, call [800] 475-1049 from the United States or visit Hashava.org.il/eng/.)

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