Natan Sharansky, Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.
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The Israeli government and the Jewish Agency are launching a new worldwide initiative to identify Jewish property lost or stolen during the Holocaust with the goal of obtaining restitution for survivors or their heirs, Haaretz has learned. Called Project HEART − Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce, the initiative is chaired by Rafi Eitan, the former senior citizen affairs minister, and directed by the Jewish Agency’s Bobby Brown, a native New Yorker who has been active in the field of Holocaust restitution for more than a decade.

“This is the first time since the Holocaust that a general comprehensive program is being launched to gather information with the eventual purpose of receiving compensation for property looted, stolen, or forcibly sold during the Holocaust,” Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said according to a yet unpublished press release, a copy of which Haaretz obtained. “This will be an opportunity for many people to finally receive compensation for property that was taken from them and their families during the Holocaust era.”

The project is expected to launch in early March with events in Jerusalem and Washington, D.C. and will be accompanied by a large advertising campaign to inform survivors and their families about the opportunity to make claims.

In its first stage, Project HEART − with an expected annual budget of around NIS 9 million − will focus on identifying individuals with potential claims mainly against Eastern European governments. Survivors or their heirs whose families owned private property − including real estate, movable items or intangible personal property − and have never been compensated will be asked to contact the project’s staff. A website and a call center available in thirteen languages will be launched to facilitate the information gathering process.

“It is not necessary to have evidence of property ownership to be eligible. If individuals believe they owned or were beneficiaries of such property, they should fill out the questionnaire,” said Anya Verkhovskaya, who is overseeing the initiative’s practical aspects. Verkhovskaya is senior executive vice president and COO at A.B. Data, a company specializing in class action suits. Based on the Milwaukee-based company’s extensive work on previous cases of Holocaust restitution claim, the Jewish Agency and the government hired the company to do the actual legwork, such as creating the call center and setting up the advertising campaigns. Verkhovskaya played key roles in two major Holocaust restitution successes, including the $1.25 billion settlement with Swiss banks, when she led programs that delivered notice to over 10,000 Jewish communities in 109 countries. She also spearheaded the administration of international help and call centers that assisted more than 100,000 potential claimants.

The Jewish Agency’s Jerusalem-based team meanwhile currently consists only of Bobby Brown − a retired JAFI official who was rehired to lead the new project, along with his secretary and a lawyer.

“Unfortunately, Holocaust survivors are leaving this world at a very rapid rate, and even their children are now in their sixties. It is extremely important to get as accurate information as we possibly can for history’s sake, for a memorial sake and for the sake of eventually coming forward in negotiations,” Brown, 59, told Haaretz this week. “We feel that this is a critical moment that maybe we waited much too long for, but nevertheless, if we don’t do it now, we may have lost the last possibility of doing it altogether.”

Project HEART − which will operate under the auspices of Deputy Minister of Senior Citizen Affairs Lea Nass ‏(Likud‏) − bases its hopes on a non-binding resolution passed during the 2009 Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague, in which the 46 participating countries agreed on their obligation to compensate Holocaust victims and their heirs for property lost on their territory.

Eastern European countries shortly before or immediately after the fall of Communism passed legislation allowing Jews to claim restitution for property lost or stolen during the Holocaust. However, due to difficult restrictions, these countries only compensated a small number of Jews with minor payments, according to Moshe Sanbar, who served for many years in senior positions in several organizations fighting for Holocaust restitution.

“With the Prague Conference we created a new basis for new claims − it wasn’t legally binding, but it was and is binding morally,” Sanbar told Haaretz this week.

“Looted property has to be restituted − this is part of European policy, several American presidents have said that’s our policy − and it’s part of Israeli policy,” said Brown, who first dealt with Holocaust restitution issues as Diaspora affairs adviser during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term. “Will we succeed? Time will tell. But we’re sure going to try.”

Project HEART sees itself as working in concert with the World Jewish Restitution Organization, Brown said. Based in Jerusalem, the Jewish Restitution Organization was founded in 1993 by 10 major Jewish bodies, including the Jewish Agency, the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany. “I hope that all NGOs that are now working in this field will join us in this effort,” Brown told Haaretz.

The U.S.-based Claims Conference is today perhaps the best-known institution involved in fighting for restitution of property lost during the Holocaust. Founded in 1951, the group became one of the wealthiest Jewish organizations in the world after the fall of Iron Curtain through the sale of buildings in Eastern Germany that had belonged to Jews but whose heirs could not be located.

In recent years, the Claims Conference has been harshly criticized for the way it has been distributing funds. In 2006, a group of Israeli organizations − headed by the Israeli government and including the Jewish Agency − demanded that Israel be granted the right to appoint half the members of the Claims Conference’s executive board to have a larger say in how its assets are distributed.

The Conference rejected the criticism, saying in response that the organization “has been outstandingly successful in negotiating for Holocaust-era compensation on behalf of Holocaust survivors worldwide in recovering property, in assisting Nazi victims and in educating future generations about the lessons of the Shoah.” Earlier this year, a report by barrister Jeffrey Gruder commissioned by the Board of Deputies of British Jews criticized the Claims Conference’s practice regarding returning funds received from Germany to their Jewish survivors or their heirs.

In an extensive response to the Gruder report, the Claims Conference stated that as of December 31, 2009, a total of 704 million euros, or NIS 3.5 billion “has been paid to or set aside for eligible original owners or heirs − all of whom would have received no property or payment were it not for the Claims Conference’s intensive efforts since 1990...

There is absolutely no basis for Mr. Gruder to presume that the Claims Conference did not and does not care about the interests of heirs.”

“The Claims Conference has done a marvelous job but they are limited to Germany and Austria,” Brown told Haaretz.

“We are not focusing, at this point, on any one country. It is a wide net we’re sending out, and hopefully we’ll have established a registry for [survivors with legitimate claims], many of whom have given up hope of ever seeing any compensation. This is the last battle of the Holocaust and it is our obligation to find a modicum of justice in this area.”

Project HEART has received overwhelmingly positive responses from Israelis involved in Holocaust restitution issues.

“I support everything that will improve the conditions of Holocaust survivors. This is a good initiative that is more than welcome,” said MK Zeev Bielski ‏(Kadima‏). About three years ago, Bielski, who then headed the Jewish Agency, had a run-in with the Claims Conference, after he pushed for an audit of its books, and the Conference reacted by temporarily stopping its funding of Jewish Agency projects, according to news reports at the time.

Sanbar, who founded the World Jewish Restitution Organization, also described Project HEART as an important initiative. Anticipating criticism by groups and individuals who might argue the new project’s work will negatively impact on ongoing negotiations with relevant foreign governments, he said this scenario was unlikely.

“A.B. Data will try to help Bobby to find all kinds of assets that belonged to Jewish people. The value of restitution is something completely different, something that is subject to negotiations."