Rightful owners may get back former belongings of Holocaust victims
State to round up, restore cultural treasures to allow victims' heirs to claim belongings.
Hundreds of thousands of books and many thousand Judaica items, which belonged to Holocaust victims and were distributed to public and private bodies in Israel in the 1950s, may now be reclaimed and returned to their heirs.
The state-owned Company for Locating and Retrieving Assets of Holocaust Victims intends to round up the cultural treasures and attempt to restore them to their rightful claimants.
It has recently transpired that more than 5,000 Judaica items, hundreds of works of art and about half a million books, including scriptures and valuable tomes that were owned by Holocaust victims, are in Israel.
Some of these items are being held by official state institutions such as the Israel National Museum and the Jewish National and University Library, and the rest are held by private bodies like museums and synagogues throughout the country.
The Company for Locating and Retrieving Assets of Holocaust Victims says that according to the law, it has to be given all these items so it can try to locate the heirs. If the heirs cannot be found the company intends to sell the items and allocate the money to organizations for aiding needy Holocaust survivors and institutions commemorating the Holocaust's remembrance.
In the first years after WWII tens of thousands of items that belonged to Holocaust victims were transferred to Israel by the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO), which had been set up by the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Agency, the World Jewish Congress, Agudat Yisrael and other organizations.
JRSO's archive has disappeared and little is known about the organization. But Haaretz has obtained summaries of debates held among JRSO's management, some of which were written by historian and political theorist Hannah Arendt, JRSO's executive secretary.
Most of the items JRSO handled came from a huge buried treasure of looted Jewish property that was discovered by the United States Army in salt mines near Wiesbaden in central Germany.
One summary says that, "in July and August 1949, 211 crates were sent from Germany containing 10,400 ritual items." About half - 97 crates - were sent to Israel, 83 to New York, 16 to Europe and 25 damaged ritual objects were sent to be melted. "In Wiesbaden, 45,000 to 50,000 volumes from Jewish-German institutions and 1,100 rare books are waiting to be sorted," it says.
JRSO looked for the items' owners only in some cases. In the case of a giant book collection dubbed the "Baltic Collection," estimated to number more than 16,000, JRSO decided to try to locate only the heirs of five or more books. The rest were distributed to institutions and organizations and 45 crates were sent to the Jewish National and University Library for two years.
In addition JRSO transferred thousands of Judaica items and hundreds of pictures via Mordechai Narkiss, the director of Bezalel collections. A considerable part of the items were transferred with the Bezalel collections to the Israel National Museum with its erection at the end of the 1960s but some were distributed earlier to other bodies, such as the Ein Harod Museum. Narkiss also gave a few thousand Judaica items to the director general of the Religious Affairs Ministry, who distributed them among synagogues and museums including Martef Hashoah (The Chamber of the Holocaust) on Mount Zion, and the museum at the seat of the Chief Rabbinate.
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem said that a university delegation headed by Professor Gershom Shalom and chief librarian Dr. Shlomo Shunami brought some 500,000 books with JRSO's help to Israel, but only half of them remained in the Jewish and University Library while the rest were distributed among synagogues around the country.