US Jews claim Holocaust-era property

Company actively seeks out heirs, success is "higher than most."

By HAVIV RETTIG GUR
April 12, 2010 11:49
3 minute read.
Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem

Holocaust survivors 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )

Israel’s official Holocaust Victims Assets Restitution Company is launching a major campaign in the United States in search of the heirs to tens of thousands of Israel-based assets belonging to victims of the Holocaust.

Established by the Knesset in 2006 as Israel’s official investigator of Holocaust victims’ properties in the country, the company is now turning outside Israel to help find the heirs to some NIS 800 million in real estate properties, bank accounts and corporate shares that have gone unclaimed since the death or disappearance of their owners during World War II.

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While the company cannot estimate the number of heirs living in the US, it has reason to believe there are many, since many European survivors could not come to Israel after the war due to British Mandate restrictions on Jewish immigration. These survivors usually chose to settle in the United States.

The highest concentration of survivors outside Israel is in the US state of Florida, a company official told The Jerusalem Post Sunday.

Over the years, even while restitution efforts were under way around the world, little attention was paid to Holocaust-era assets within Israel, much of it in the form of long-dormant bank accounts and real estate. The company was formed to correct that lacuna, and it has already located and restored some NIS 40m. to thousands of owners and heirs.

Now, to locate the survivors and heirs to the thousands of assets in its possession, the company has launched an ad campaign in Jewish newspapers throughout the United States and in Jewish Web sites with an American audience,  asking heirs to come forward.

It is also reaching out to the hundreds of Jewish federations and synagogues that make up the major communal institutions of most American Jews.

“Even if you have only the tip of a thread, we will investigate it,” promised Zvi Kanor, the former air force general and businessman who has headed the company since its founding.

According to Kanor, the company’s mandate is to actively seek out heirs, “so our success rate is higher than most. Usually, organizations working in Holocaust restitution achieve a 10 percent success rate. We range from 13% to 15%,” depending on the year, he says.

The company operates according to specific rules delineated in the 2006 law that founded it. Under this law, any assets that belonged to Holocaust victims at the time of their death must be transferred to the company, which is tasked with either finding the rightful heir or, failing that, with using the funds to help needy survivors.

Any assets obtained from the State Custodian-General, which inherits unclaimed properties, must be held for the heirs for two years. Any assets received from the Israel Lands Administration and Jewish National Fund – where pre-state Jewish investment often went – must be held for seven years.

During this time, the assets are listed on the company’s Web site, which now holds over 55,000 specific assets waiting to be claimed.

Kanor expects to locate another NIS 400m.-NIS 500m. in bank accounts in some of Israel’s largest banks. The company is required to comb these banks records for Holocaust victims’ assets and is empowered to sue them to obtain ownership of the assets.

While deals have been struck with Discount and Hapoalim, and arbitration proceedings are under way with Leumi, the company has yet to reach a deal with Mercantile Discount and Mizrahi.
Assets not claimed by heirs can be used by the company to help needy Holocaust survivors, defined by law as those recognized by the Finance Ministry’s Holocaust Survivor Benefits Authority. Some 10,000 survivors are recognized as needy.

In 2010, the assistance to needy survivors will reach some NIS 127.5m., a 27% increase from 2009, according to the company.


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