What happened to Israel’s Holocaust restitution program?

Shurat Hadin is working to restart the HEART project that gave hope to hundreds of thousands of Holocaust-scarred families.

 Israeli flag is seen attached to "Shoes on the Danube Bank" memorial during the annual "March of the Living" to commemorate victims of the Holocaust (photo credit: REUTERS/BERNADETT SZABO)
Israeli flag is seen attached to "Shoes on the Danube Bank" memorial during the annual "March of the Living" to commemorate victims of the Holocaust

“The Holocaust was not only the greatest murder ever committed, but the greatest robbery in history,” said Natan Sharansky, former chairman of the Jewish Agency, at a 2011 news conference for the Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Task Force, or Project HEART.

HEART was to serve as a witness of that systematic pillaging of Jewish communities. The objective was to collect documents and testimonies of property seized from Jews, and create a database to become a tool for restitution and historical research.

The project gave hope to hundreds of thousands of families, but that hope was dashed when the project was abruptly closed in 2014. Many Holocaust survivors weren’t told of the closure. Some believe that HEART is still working on their behalf.

On Monday, Shurat Hadin, a legal and civil rights NGO, filed an appeal to the Justice Ministry and the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry for the release of HEART’s database, with the intent to pick up where the project left off and get long-denied restitution for survivors. It may be the last opportunity.

 Benny Brown (credit: BOBBY BROWN) Benny Brown (credit: BOBBY BROWN)

‘A labor of love’

HEART was the brainchild of Rafi Eitan, the Israeli politician and former intelligence officer. According to Shurat Hadin, after Eitan’s Pensioner’s Party failed to meet the electoral threshold in 2009, and he was denied a promised ministerial position, Eitan asked instead to head a new Holocaust restitution program. Eitan recruited Bobby Brown to be HEART’s director.

“Until that point, all of the efforts to retrieve Jewish properties from the Holocaust were done by top-down method,” said Brown. “They would negotiate [with governments] and then they would look if there are any Holocaust survivors that qualified.” Brown and Eitan worked to create a “bottom-up” approach in which the demands of Holocaust victims would be collected, and then presented to relevant bodies.

The task force allied with 12,000 Jewish communities. The process wasn’t easy, but for Brown and his team of 60 local volunteers and almost 2,000 global volunteers, it was a “labor of love.”

After three years, HEART had collected more than 200,000 claims of properties, insurance policies, businesses, investments and more. The resulting databases included about “two million properties that were stolen or looted during the Holocaust,” said Anya Verkhovskaya, administrative director for the project working at AV Data. “Which is the largest archive ever, and survivors and their heirs could search that archive in any language to look for their relatives.” The system even had a special “algorithm to pull names that would be spelled in a similar way.”

In addition to being a tool for claims, Brown said that they “looked at this as part of Holocaust history that had never been documented. We began working, going to various companies, beginning the process of getting restitution with a moderate degree of success in the beginning. And then we were closed down.”

HEART’s last beat

TAMIR MANOWITZ’S father, Shaul, passed away in 2016. The Manowitz family had sent in claims to HEART, and thought they were still being processed until Tamir spoke to Shurat Hadin.

“If he was alive today he would be 90,” said Manowitz. It was only when Shaul was 80 that he began to share his stories, how his father and grandfather had a workshop and house in Romania. Ten years ago HEART “was in touch with us, they sent us messages, I even remember I spoke to a woman named Anya,” Manowitz said. “One day the communications went silent.”

The AV Data offices were suddenly told to cease operations in June 2014.

“The Senior Citizens Ministry even banned project workers from sending [notifications to the applicants],” said a Shurat Hadin notice to the Justice Ministry.

“Over the past 10 years, I’ve been contacted by numerous families,” said Verkhovskaya. “They keep asking me ‘what happened?’ Everything that they would mail or email to [HEART] would bounce back. The phone numbers were not being forwarded to anyone. They were just literally unplugged one day without any notice to anybody.”

With that silence, all the documents the Holocaust victims sent were lost.

“Many sent the original documents because they didn’t have means to make copies,” Verkhovskaya said. “They thought that they’re sending those original documents to the government of Israel – ‘what can go wrong?’

“You’re reading those documents, those letters, the correspondence that was attached, it was unique, it was unprecedented,” Verkhovskaya said with tears in her eyes. “It was heart-wrenching because in the past, survivors didn’t have a chance to have the State of Israel speak on their behalf.”

Verkhovskaya explained that the glut of restitution projects fatigues survivors, but the survivors decided to “trust the State of Israel, to have their voices heard. They feel that they’ve been violated once again. What I’ve been hearing from many families now is that as survivors pass on, many families don’t even have access to” documents.

According to the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry, the claims “were collected with a commitment that they will be used for internal government purposes only, and will not be passed on to external parties, and therefore will not be published to the general public.”

HEART, it said, “was never an individual claims-management system in itself, nor was it established to replace the need to examine the claims made by government ministries... In 2014, the phase of collecting information from the public ended and therefore the activity of the project ended. The information collected is used by the ministry, which continues in cooperation with the MFA to promote a political dialogue with the various countries and promote legislation that is supposed to promote arrangements regarding plundered Jewish property.”

Verkhovskaya said that “the intention during the handover is that the Ministry of Senior Citizens would put that database back up online. But that never happened.”

Shurat Hadin charged that the “authorities and state have robbed [survivors] and their families of all their property.”

 Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, founder of Sharut Hadin (credit: SHARUT HADIN) Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, founder of Sharut Hadin (credit: SHARUT HADIN)

A Last Chance

Explaining the origin of Last Chance, Shurat Hadin founder Nitsana Darshan-Leitner said “We started a campaign in which we called on [Holocaust survivors] who had insurance policies to come and see if it’s possible as a big group to redeem the policies. The applicants revealed to us that there was a project already doing something similar, Project HEART – and the applicants thought that the project was still alive” and that the government was still helping their claims.

“This was supposed to be the flagship project of the state of Israel for Holocaust victims, to do them justice,” said Darshan-Leitner. “The government does what it promised, or it lets someone else do it,” by making the database public. “They also need to let the 200,000 applicants know that they’re not doing this anymore. Don’t leave them in a fog.”

Shurat Hadin filed an appeal on Monday on behalf of HEART applicants.

Manowitz said se was for restarting the project, and sent documents to Shurat Hadin’s new program, though he notes that few survivors still remain.

While a number of years have passed, access to the database “would give any organizational effort the step up if they had access to the database,” said Brown.

Shurat Hadin is attempting to pick up the pieces of the broken HEART, and their project “Last Chance” may be the final opportunity for justice of the “greatest robbery.” They’ve opened a website where applicants can file their claims.

HEART “was trying to get some justice back to those families,” said Verkhovskaya. “That’s why it’s so embarrassing and so painful to be in the position where we went from being the biggest activists and supporters of Project HEART to being heartbroken.”