Budget issues curtail activities of HEART, Israel’s Holocaust restitution effort in NY

HEART began operations 3 years following a 2007 government decision to involve itself in the issue of restitution.

Holocaust tattoos 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Holocaust tattoos 370
(photo credit: reuters)
Project HEART, a government initiative cataloguing Jewish assets stolen during the Holocaust, may have to scale back its activities due to a budget shortfall, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Among the projects affected by HEART’s financial woes is a joint effort with New York State’s Office of Unclaimed Funds to “reunite Holocaust survivors and their heirs with unclaimed funds that are rightfully theirs,” according to the governmental office’s website.
HEART, which stands for Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce, began operations three years following a 2007 government decision to involve itself in the issue of restitution.
HEART does not involve itself with restitution negotiations with Austria and Germany – the domain of the Conference of Material Claims Against Germany, a New Yorkbased organization that has been providing restitution and support to Holocaust survivors and their heirs since the early 1950s. Rather, HEART compiles claims relating to assets stolen, confiscated or looted throughout the rest of Europe.
However, there are no agreements in place with any of these European countries to offer compensation for stolen Jewish property. As such, the claims compiled by HEART only serve as a tool for the Foreign Ministry concerning compensation and do not in themselves directly result in compensation for survivors and their heirs.
In March, representatives of HEART arrived in Poland for a series of meetings with government officials, leading to what HEART director Bobby Brown called a “huge step forward” in breaching the reluctance of Poles to offer compensation.
“We are using the mass of claims we have to pressure for change in the situation where too many have not received any justice until now,” Brown told the Post.
However, money is running short. According to Brown, unless HEART receives its budget soon, he will have to diminish his activities.
There is only a small amount of cash left from HEART’s original 2009 allocation, he said, and he has been forced to operate on what he calls a “shoestring budget” for the past several months.
“We originally were given money by a decision of the government. That money, a little of it, stills exists, and that is what we are living on right now,” he said.
The new budget, which Brown asserted is supposed to come from the Senior Citizen Affairs Ministry by way of the Jewish Agency, should have arrived “months ago.”
“We were waiting for the election, we were waiting for the government to form, we were waiting for the budget to pass,” but still have not received anything, he said, adding that he believed that the government was “working on it.”
Last year, New York State Comptroller Thomas P.
DiNapoli and the state Office of Unclaimed Funds joined forces with HEART to compare the government’s “database of more than 28 million lost accounts dating back to 1943” and to match it against restitution claims collected by Israel.
Among the monies held by New York are “Funds Held by Swiss Banks and Insurance Companies in Europe” that do business in the state.
“At the beginning of WWII many of the Swiss banks established branch operations in New York,” according to the Office of Unclaimed Funds’ website.
The Swiss banks subsequently transferred funds to their New York branches, the site explains. After WWII, most of those funds were transferred back to the Swiss banks in Europe. In some cases, funds belonging to Holocaust survivors and victims remained in the New York branches.
“Due to account inactivity,” it continues, “some of those branch offices subsequently reported those funds to the New York State Comptroller’s Office as dormant accounts.
While many of these accounts have already been claimed by the rightful owners, some accounts still remain outstanding.”
According to Brown, HEART identified “4,000 very likely beneficiaries” but it does not have the necessary funds to contact them or to continue the work necessary to identify more potential recipients.
While the list has been in HEART’s hands for four or five months, Brown said, HEART is unable to proceed and is “waiting for our budget so we can proceed to notify” them.
Anya Verkhovskaya, an Academy Award-winning producer and HEART’s project manager in the United States, told the Post that Florida and at least one other state have expressed interest in following New York in working with the organization.
Should more funds come in, Verkhovskaya said, “we could work closely with the state of New York on digitizing more records” as well as finally contacting potential owners of the state-held funds.
Asked about where HEART’s budget currently stands, Ayal Eliezer, assistant to the director general of the Senior Citizen Affairs Ministry, told the Post that it could take up to two weeks to provide an answer.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, one of the driving forces behind HEART, was unable to provide a comment in time for this article.
JTA contributed to this report.