Et tu, Israel?

60 years ago, Israel absorbed assets of Jews killed in the Holocaust. One survivor wants them back.

roet 88 (photo credit: )
roet 88
(photo credit: )
The occupant of the fourth-floor office building on Ramat Gan's Rehov Ben-Gurion has quite a name: The Company for Locating and Retrieving Assets of People Who Were Killed in the Holocaust Ltd. Those in the know just call it "the Company." The Company's self-stated goal is to seek justice for the heirs of Jews killed in the Holocaust whose property was absorbed into Israeli bodies some 60 years ago. And its challenge is to achieve it in the shortest time possible. It started up in November, and last week the walls were being plastered, masking tape was on the floor, files were stacked in boxes and staffers - so far just eight - had to walk around a workman's ladder set up in the hall. For now, this is an inauspicious-looking operation. But in about two months, according to chairman Avraham Roet's estimate, the Company is going to set in motion a historic process that should cause quite a stir. At that time it plans to start publishing thousands of names of Jews who, before they were killed in the Holocaust, purchased land in what is now Israel, held accounts or shares in what are now Israeli banks or, possibly, owned artwork or Judaica that is now housed in the Israel Museum. According to a law that went into effect last year, the descendants of those martyred owners are entitled to inherit their assets. Roet, 78, a retired businessman and one of the leading activists among Holocaust survivors here, estimates their total value as "at least $500 million, but we think it's more than $1 billion." He explains that even if an original bank deposit was only a few British pounds, the heirs are entitled not only to the principal but to 70 or more years of interest as well. As for the property, Roet explains: "Let's say somebody bought five dunams [1.25 acre] of sand dunes in 1931. How much could it have cost then? But five dunams in what has since become, say, Ramat Aviv, is worth a great deal today." The land purchased in pre-state Israel by European Jews remained mainly with the state and the Jewish National Fund, Roet says, and much of it, no doubt, was sold to Israelis who are now living on it. The bank accounts, about 95 percent of which were in Bank Leumi, were transferred in a labyrinthine process to the state's Custodian-General's Office, or national lost-and-found, shortly after independence. A relatively small amount of the interest on those accounts remains with the banks. In addition, says Roet, about 2.5% of the shares in Leumi were originally owned by Jews killed in the Holocaust, and are now in the hands of one of the bank's shareholders, Otzar Hityashvut Hayehudim (Jewish Settlement Fund). Once the names start being published and the heirs presumably begin coming forward, the procedure for finding out who the owners were, what they owned and who is entitled to inherit it stands to be drawn out and extraordinarily complex. The Custodian-General's Office has transferred some 1,200 Holocaust-era asset files to the Company, and these files range from two pages to 2,600 pages each. "The Knesset spent four years trying to determine what happened to the Holocaust-era bank accounts alone; it didn't even touch the real estate or the artwork," says Roet. He and other Company members have been meeting with officials in charge of the giant public enterprises holding the money and property involved. From these meetings, as well as his years of experience in tracking Holocaust-era assets, Roet concludes, "We expect to spend a large amount of our time in litigation." Furthermore, he expects that no more than 30% of the heirs will be found. Of the assets that go unclaimed, 10% will go, by law, to Holocaust education and memorialization, 15% into a reserve fund and 75% to impoverished Holocaust survivors living here, who number, by conservative estimates, 70,000. This could mean hundreds of millions of badly-needed dollars for these people's food, health care and other basic needs. They are old, mainly in their 80s, and time is running out for them. By law, though, the unclaimed assets cannot be transferred to needy survivors right away, because they are privately owned and must be set aside for the heirs for at least a certain amount of time. Asked how long it might be before those 70,000 economically-strapped Holocaust survivors might see that money, Roet says it's impossible to tell at such an early stage. Once the Company publishes the first lists of thousands of names of the original asset-holders, their descendants will be able to fill out a form and make their claim to the Company. "Nobody will need a lawyer," says Roet. "We are not going to ask for documentation that can't possibly be provided." By law, the Custodian-General's Office, Israel Lands Administration (which administers state-owned land), Bank Leumi, Jewish National Fund, the Israel Museum and other institutions holding Holocaust-era assets are required to transfer them to the Company, which in turn will hand them over to the heirs. THE CUSTODIAN-GENERAL's Office has already given the Company a first installment of NIS 45 million, which represents mainly Holocaust-era bank accounts. The office, which has held the accounts since the early 1950s, is supposed to send along another roughly NIS 200 million, says Roet. He is very critical of the government, the financial institutions, the Zionist organizations and every other establishment organ for their response to demands for restitution made in recent years by descendants of the Holocaust martyrs. "Mainly, I blame Israel for never taking the initiative to determine the ownership of these assets," he says. "Since 2000 [when the Knesset began its inquiry into Holocaust-era bank accounts], the State of Israel has known that there are properties in its hands belonging to the heirs of Jews killed in the Holocaust, yet it has never done serious research into it." In the most respectful tones, officials from at least two of those institutions, Bank Leumi and the Israel Museum, disagree. "We have very good relations with Avraham Roet and the Company, it is very important for us to cooperate with them, and we've been completely open with them and given them whatever information they need," says Gideon Schurr, head of external relations and public affairs for Bank Leumi. Noting that as a result of the Knesset inquiry, the bank set aside NIS 35 million to pay the heirs of account-holders, Schurr says: "I think that this amount will definitely be enough to settle all the claims, and the faster the better. It can be simple if the requests are logical and proceed according to what everyone knows to be the facts." James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, points out, "When someone comes to us with a verifiable claim [to inherit artworks owned by someone killed in the Holocaust], of course we return the works. That's always been our policy." He adds that museums around the world are housing, knowingly or unknowingly, works originally owned by people killed in the Holocaust, and that the Israel Museum has "tried to take an exemplary and leading role" regarding restitution. He notes that over the years, the museum has readily given nearly 20 artworks to such heirs, most recently a few months ago. One work was by Pissarro, another by Degas. The museum's inventory of Holocaust-era pieces, says Snyder, includes several hundred items of Judaica, most of which were owned by communities or institutions, not individuals; about 200 works of art that came from the Jewish Museum in Berlin; and 350 paintings and drawings with no record of prior ownership. "Very few of the artworks and Judaica have significant monetary or art-historical value, but they all have emotional value," he says. They were given to the museum for safekeeping, he explains, in the early 1950s by the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization, which tried to track down assets belonging to Holocaust victims. The artwork and Judaica "was distributed to appropriate institutions worldwide to be held as cultural property for the benefit of the public, or until they were claimed by the owners or heirs," he continues, adding this is exactly what the Israel Museum has done. After the first meeting between Roet's team and officials of the Israel Lands Administration, spokeswoman Ortal Tzabar says the ILA "is only now starting to see if we can find all the information. We can't know [which Holocaust victims owned what land] at the push of a button. What the heads of the ILA promised was to make a serious effort to find out." The JNF and Custodian-General's Office did not answer requests for interviews. SITTING ACROSS a desk, Roet comes across as a wholly determined, willful, even driven man on the subject of Holocaust asset recovery. Raised in Amsterdam, where his grandfather had been the leader of the Jewish community, Roet lost two sisters and a foster brother in Auschwitz. His parents and three brothers survived, his parents having been hidden by Polish coal miners and his brothers by Dutch Christian families. Roet himself was hidden by 12 successive Dutch Christian families over 18 months until liberation. He came to Palestine by himself in 1946. Long a leader of the Dutch immigrant community here, he trained, in a sense, for his current work by working with Jews in Holland to gain restitution from the Dutch government for assets owned by Dutch Jews killed in the Holocaust. In 2000, the Dutch government and Dutch financial institutions gave 400 million euros to Dutch Holocaust survivors, heirs of Dutch Jews killed in the Holocaust and Dutch Jewish institutions, including several here. "Then the focus on Israel began," Roet says, stressing that he himself received no money from the settlement in Holland, and will receive none from the settlement here. The very idea of claiming that Israeli banks, especially the original one, Bank Leumi, were holding and benefiting from accounts that rightfully belonged to the heirs of Jews killed in the Holocaust was controversial in the extreme. After Israel joined the entire organized Jewish world in demanding restitution from Swiss banks for their Holocaust-era accounts, turning that campaign against local banks was an audacious act, placing not only bank officials but government leaders in an awfully delicate, embarrassing position. At the end of the four-year inquiry, MK Colette Avital, who headed the subcommittee in charge of it, said: "What we have discovered, in particular the attitude of the banks, has filled us with disgust." She said the inquiry turned up "no intentional act to keep people from getting their money. But there was callousness and insensitivity." Midway through the inquiry, Roet says, Holocaust survivors here began to feel that the banks and the government ministries were stonewalling them, and a sense of alienation from the political and financial establishment set in. "There was just a feeling among people that something was wrong," he says. The law that emerged from the Knesset inquiry is "probably the most complicated law in Israeli history," he says, adding that it is deeply flawed. For example, it requires the state to fund the Company's work with NIS 24 million, but requires the Company to pay that money back to the state out of the Holocaust-era assets it recovers. "The European governments - Germany, Austria, Norway and so on - all financed the restitution efforts in their countries," he notes. "The Israeli government isn't paying a penny for the cost of our work." He describes the Company as the local version of the Claims Conference, the New York-based organization that recovers German assets owned by Holocaust victims and distributes them to survivors, heirs and Holocaust education and memorial projects. Noting that the Claims Conference "started in 1950 with four people and now has more than 500 employees," Roet says the Company's staff will will not grow much. "We're going to remain a small company with as little bureaucracy as possible," he says, adding that it will "outsource" the bulk of the voluminous research and verification that lies ahead. It is now seven years since the Knesset inquiry into Israel's Holocaust-era assets began. There have been very, very few Holocaust survivors or heirs who've received restitution, and they have had to pursue their claims individually with the various public offices involved. Now there is a "one-stop" public committee that will act as a middleman between the claimants and the government and institutions. When will the heirs get their money, when will this difficult stage in Israel's experience of the Holocaust be over? It is still unclear at this stage, but at least after 60 years of neglect by the State of Israel, we can see a slender flicker of light at the end of the long tunnel toward reparations.