The dry numbers presented by the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets, which shuttered last week, are confusing. They could be read as a success story with a positive conclusion or as a resounding, long-standing tragedy. To some extent, both readings are accurate.
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Upon completion of its 10 years of activity, the company had managed to locate Israeli assets worth 2.1 billion shekels (almost $610 million) that had been owned by Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. The list of assets includes apartments, buildings, plots of land, bank accounts, stocks and bonds. The value of the assets whose heirs have been identified amounts to some 718 million shekels, and of this 412 million shekels has so far been handed over to heirs.
A quick calculation shows that no heirs were found for about 60 percent of the assets the company identified, and that almost half of the identified heirs have yet to receive their assets, despite the company’s best efforts.
The Company for Location and Restitution (Hachevra Hashava in Hebrew) was established by Israel in 2007, in order to rectify a historic injustice caused by the state and other Jewish organizations to the families of Holocaust victims. For 70 years, tens of thousands of assets belonging to people murdered in the Holocaust were held by various entities, including the Administrator General (within the Justice Ministry), the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael), the Israel Land Development Company, the Israel Land Authority and Bank Leumi (originally the Anglo-Palestine Bank). Although the assets are private property, they were never restored to the heirs of the murdered victims.
The company’s aim was to do belated justice to those who perished, locate their assets and restore them to their legal heirs.
“Rectification of the injustice is manifested not only in the return of the assets to the heirs, but also in the commemoration of the murdered individuals who had purchased assets in Eretz Yisrael [British Mandatory Palestine] but did not have the opportunity to settle there themselves,” says lawyer
Elinor Kroitoru, who ran the company’s Asset Location and Information Division. “Those individuals helped redeem lands in Eretz Yisrael, deposited money in banks in Eretz Yisrael and provided the economic foundation and initial funding upon which the state was established,” she adds.
The road to historic justice was not easy and passed through many stations in Israel and abroad. These included locating documents like birth and burial certificates in dusty archives; drawing up family trees in the search for relatives who never knew the people whose assets they inherited (some of whom were found in unexpected places like Fiji or Abu Dhabi); conducting exhausting court battles against organizations that refused to release money; and making legislative changes in the Knesset in order to overcome decades-old bureaucratic obstacles.
At its peak, about 60 people worked at the company. “We worked like a commando unit that operated very efficiently and achieved respectable achievements,” says Kroitoru. “We were an eclectic bunch of former Shin Bet security service operatives, historians, lawyers and high-tech people, who together created a beautiful mix with much dedication, faith and motivation.”
People behind the numbers
For a better understanding of the essence and nature of the company’s work, it is not enough to examine the numbers. Instead, it is also necessary to know the people behind them – Zionists from Europe who accumulated assets in British Mandatory Palestine, but were murdered before they managed to enjoy them.
This was the case, for example, with a group of 40 friends from the Polish city of Bedzin, who in 1925 jointly purchased land in the Haifa Bay area with the aim of immigrating together and settling there. However, they were all murdered in the Holocaust and never had the chance to enjoy the fruit of their investment, which eventually came into the hands of Israel’s Administrator General and was classified as “absentee property.”
One of the investors was Zyskind Zygielbaum. In the 1960s and ’70s, his daughters – who survived the war – unsuccessfully tried to obtain possession of their deceased father’s land. It was only when the Company for Location and Restitution entered the picture that the circle was closed. The company located the daughters, who showed proof that their father had purchased the land: One of the items was a letter in Yiddish he sent from Bedzin in 1939 to acquaintances in British Mandatory Palestine. Thanks to the company’s work, his daughters were finally registered as the owners of the land many decades later.
Hirsch Yaakov Galebsky, the owner of a fabric and textile-dying business in Lodz, Poland, bought land in British Mandatory Palestine in 1938 – in Poriya, near Lake Kinneret. He died in the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1944, and his wife was also killed in the Holocaust. At the conclusion of an intense investigation by the company, the Galebskys’ daughter, Fela, was located in Paris. It transpired she had been hidden in a convent during the war and was then placed in a Jewish orphanage in Poland, until she immigrated to Israel with Youth Aliyah. In 2014, the plot of land her father had purchased 76 years earlier was finally registered in her name.
Equally moving is the story of dentist Dr. Noah Cremer and his wife Anna, Jews from Kishinev (now Chisinau). They opened an account at the Anglo-Palestine Bank in the 1930s, in advance of their planned immigration to Palestine with their daughter Matilda. However, they too were murdered in the Holocaust and the money they had deposited was subsequently transferred to the Administrator General.
As a result of the restitution company’s investigation, the Cremer family’s money was transferred to Noah’s 92-year-old sister and Anna’s brother, who was over 90, and to Noah’s nephews – the sons of his brother who survived the Holocaust and immigrated to Israel.
As in other cases, this restitution gave rise not only to money but also to a family reunion. It turned out the two sides of the family had both kept pictures of Noah and Anna Cremer in their photo albums, in the belief that they were the sole survivors of the family – without knowing that both sides actually lived a short distance from each other.
Professional musician Ignatz Friedmann from Cluj (now in Romania, formerly in Hungary) also dreamed of going to Eretz Yisrael. To that end, he deposited a sum of money in the Hadar Hacarmel branch of the Anglo-Palestine Bank. After the Company for Location and Restitution was established, it was contacted by his surviving daughter, Edith. The documents she provided showed that her father and her brother Akosh were murdered in Auschwitz while she and her mother Elizaveta survived, immigrated to Israel and lived in Haifa. In 2012, about 70 years after her father was murdered, the money he had deposited in his bank account in British Mandatory Palestine was transferred to his daughter.
Families of well-known individuals also received property that had belonged to relatives who were murdered. One such case was Jacobus Kahn, a Jewish banker from the Netherlands who participated in the First Zionist Congress in 1897, was among the founders of the Jewish Colonial Trust in 1899 and established the Anglo-Palestine Bank in 1902.
Kahn entered the history books when he purchased the first 60 plots of land in the homesteading society Ahuzat Bayit, registered them in his name and enabled the start of construction in the first Hebrew city, Tel Aviv. Before he was murdered in Theresienstadt, he purchased a share certificate in Eretz Yisrael. His wife and three of their five children also perished in the Holocaust. But thanks to the work of the Company for Location and Restitution, his share was transferred to his grandchildren.
“Our work in the Company for Location and Restitution brought these people back to life. None of them was well known like Mordechai Anielewicz,” says Kroitoru, referring to a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, “and many of them were never remembered or recognized before.” Thanks to the company, some of the heirs received a symbolic sum of 1,800 shekels. Others became millionaires – like one woman, a Moscow resident, who received 12 million shekels.
Without a trace
However, alongside the successes, the company’s activity also led to a number of failures. In many instances, it proved impossible to locate the heirs of people who perished in the Holocaust, even after considerable effort. “It is very frustrating to know that a certain person existed – with a name, a photo, an address and a profession – but it was impossible to find their heirs,” says Kroitoru. “It is hard to accept the fact that there are people who vanished without a trace.” In other cases, the potential heirs did not have the necessary evidence to receive the asset – something that naturally led to much frustration.
In 2016, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira released a report on the restitution company, which included claims of squandered funds and excessive salaries for directors, some of whom also received generous bonuses. “Many of us were idealistic, passionate employees who acted out of a sense of historic justice in the deepest sense of the word,” says a former junior employee at the restitutions company, who asked to remain anonymous. However, he adds, “While the ordinary employees received a salary of 8,500 shekels, the top people earned tens of thousands of shekels and also received bonuses and a company car – that is not very proportional.
“It’s a good thing to motivate people to work well, but you have to remember that this didn’t come from private money, but rather from the money of people who were murdered in the Holocaust,” he concludes.
Another open criticism comes from geographical historian and Israel Prize winner Prof. Yossi Katz, who first revealed the existence of assets belonging to Holocaust victims in Israel, and whose activity was part of the reason the restitutions company was established. Katz, who served as a paid consultant to the company, believes any money from victims for whom heirs were not found should have been transferred to Holocaust survivors.
According to the company’s figures, it transferred about 1 million shekels to survivors, but Katz thinks this is too little and too late. “The company could have known at a very early stage that the percentage of heirs who would be found would not be very high,” he says, “and therefore it should have released most of that money for the benefit of Holocaust survivors, with a commitment from the state that if and when any heirs are found – even 100 years from now – it will indemnify those heirs for the money.”
The restitutions company says it has closed because it has already restored the largest assets and has completed its work on most of the assets that could be returned to heirs. The cost of its activity does not justify its continued existence, it adds.
Its work will now be performed by a new team at the Administrator General’s Office, which is tasked with dealing with the 120 or so files that remain open. Among other things, there are still court cases proceeding on claims filed against the Israel Land Development Company, which call on it to transfer assets in its possession to the rightful heirs.
Another area where a considerable amount of work remains is the restoration of cultural assets, including books, Judaica and works of art that were owned by Holocaust victims and are still held in Israeli museums and libraries.
“We have delegated the public sector in Israel to deal with these looted treasures,” says Dr. Israel Peleg, outgoing CEO of the Company for Location and Restitution. “Now, just as Israel demands from the whole world that it deal with the issue out of responsibility toward those who perished in the Holocaust, its own institutions – including the Culture Ministry and museums – must allocate resources to locate the heirs of art assets that are held here.”