For the first time, local banks that have held the assets of Jewish Holocaust victims for more than six decades have begun to return the accounts to their heirs.
The move, which began this week with the transfer of some NIS 25 million to the government-run Holocaust Victims Assets Restitution Company, comes after a two-year negotiating process in which the country's banks have admitted and begun to investigate their holdings of Holocaust-era Jewish property, mostly in the form of bank accounts.
The money will be transferred in the coming days and weeks to the heirs of the account-holders, many of whom are themselves survivors of the Holocaust.
The company was established in 2006 by a Knesset law tasking it with returning the abandoned property of Holocaust victims to their rightful owners. The law requires that any party in possession of property that belonged to victims at the time of their deaths must transfer them to the company for this purpose. Any assets whose heirs are not located will be transferred to organizations working for the welfare of survivors, according to the company's guidelines.
Most of the NIS 25m. (some NIS 20m.) comes from accounts held by Bank Leumi, with relatively small amounts coming from accounts in Bank Hapoalim (NIS 1.3m.) and Bank Discount (NIS 1.2m.). Bank Leumi is thought to owe an additional NIS 250m., and it has entered into arbitration with the government over some 3,500 bank accounts believed to have belonged to Jews who died in the Holocaust.
In all, the Restitution Company expects some NIS 400m. in assets to be available by the end of the year for transfer to heirs of Holocaust victims or to survivor welfare groups.
The banks will also transfer company shares once owned by the victims, and these are expected to be worth several hundred million shekels.
"I commend the management of the banks for their recognition of their debt toward those who perished in the Holocaust, and for the return of their funds," said company chairman Menahem Ariav.
He added that the company would continue seeking the return of assets held by other parties, "including the state, the JNF and others."
The company continues to fault two additional banks, Bank Mizrahi and Bank Mercantile Discount, for failing to come to an agreement to transfer assets it says are valued at NIS 20m. and NIS 11.5m., respectively.
"Time is of the essence for the survivors and heirs," said Zvi Kanor, a former businessman and IAF brigadier-general who serves as the company's CEO. "I call on the management of Bank Mizrahi and Bank Mercantile Discount, which still hold the property of those who perished, to return it completely in order to enable us to fulfill a historical justice with the victims and their heirs, and to help us improve the lives of as many survivors as possible."
The company's determinations vis-Ã -vis the banks are based on reports by government-contracted accounting firms that started investigating the accounts following a five-year probe of the issue by a parliamentary committee, that ended in 2005.
According to the company, some 3,000 heirs have submitted requests for their ancestors' assets, and the company will begin transferring money to some of these immediately. The remainder are awaiting confirmation of their claims before the funds can be transferred.
In its three-year existence, the company has located about NIS 700m. in Holocaust victims' assets in Israel, including 524 real estate properties and 26,000 shares in banks. Around NIS 240m. has already been transferred to heirs and needy survivors.