After 70 Years, Legal Case Pits Two Holocaust Victim's Heirs Against Each Other

After Israel's establishment in 1948, relatives of Y. and his wife B. – offspring of their siblings – embarked on a fight in the Israeli courts about who should inherit a property in Israel

FILE PHOTO: A Holocaust survivor shows her tattooed arm at her house in Holon near Tel Aviv, Israel, January 23, 2005.
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

"It isn't every day that one runs into a case like this," remarked Edo Divon, an estate lawyer. Indeed the case is unusual. It began with the tragedy of an entire family's slaughter in the Holocaust, and is just ending now with the transfer of a property in Israel that could be worth as much as 9 million shekels to the heirs of the husband, not the heirs of the wife. 

En route to that ruling, the apex of a highly charged battle between the two groups of heirs, the court canceled a probate approved 65 years ago, which is an extraordinary move, says Divon. 

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The story begins in the 1930s, when Y., a Jew in his 50s from the city of Tomaszow in Poland, went to Israel, bought land, and deposited money in various banks, intending for himself and his family to move there one day. (The full names of the people involved are confidential, for reasons of privacy.) Y. then returned to Poland

Many other Jews did much the same thing at the time, buying land and homes in Israel, depositing money and buying securities to support the Zionist enterprise and prepare for aliyah. 

But after World War II it turned out that many of these property owners had gone back to Europe and been killed, and among them was Y. He, his wife and three children had been incarcerated in the Lodz ghetto and later all were murdered, as were Y.'s son-in-law and grandchildren. The whole family, like so many others, was wiped off the face of the earth. 

After Israel's establishment in 1948, relatives of Y. and his wife B. – offspring of their siblings – embarked on a fight in the Israeli courts about who should inherit the property in Israel. 

There was just one question at stake: which of the family members had been killed first. 

Legally speaking, that awful question was crucial, as the last to die would be the one whose heirs should inherit. 

"It was critical for determining who inherits from whom. Meaning, to which side of the family the assets would be transferred: the side of the husband or the side of the wife," Divon explains. 

In 1953 the family of the wife, B., presented testimony that the husband Y. had been killed in January 1942, while the wife B. had died later, in April 1943. Therefore, the assets belonged to her side of the family, they argued. A witness at the trial testified that Y. had been murdered in January 1942 and said he had helped place his body on a wagon.

Y's family rejected to this version of events but did not provide the authorities with documentation showing otherwise.

The Tel Aviv District Court sitting on the case accepted the wife's family's version, which meant that upon Y.'s death, his wife B. would have inherited the estate; and therefore the assets would go to her family's side of the family tree. 

And so it was. The offspring of the wife's family received Y.'s assets which after his death, had belonged to B. before her own murder. The offspring of the husband Y.'s family got nothing. 

Decades passed, and the responsibility over assets left by Holocaust victims passed from the Finance Ministry to the custodian general, but it too failed to locate heirs and restore their property. In 2000, thanks to Knesset member Colette Avital, a parliamentary inquiry was set up to locate and Holocaust victims' assets in Israel and transfer them to their heirs. In 2006 the government set up a company to locate and return the victims' assets. 

The company operated for 11 years and closed down in 2017, but meanwhile it says it located 2.1 billion worth of assets, many in central Israel. The company located heirs for 718 million shekels worth of this, but that was all. Now that the company has been shuttered, handling the remaining assets has been given to the custodian general, a branch of the Justice Ministry.

One asset the company located a decade ago is Y's property, in Bnei Brak, which is estimated to be worth between 7 to 9 million shekels. In 1953, when the rest of his property was transferred to the heirs of his wife, the restitution company carried out a new archival investigation and found information that contradicted the information presented to the court in 1953.

The new information proved that Y., the husband, had been murdered later than B., the wife, in utter contrast to the original claim; therefore the heirs of the building in Bnei Brak should be the husband's family, not the wife's. 

Despite the restitution company's discovery, heirs of both the husband and wife sued in family court in recent years, to claim the asset. The question was the credibility of the documents contradicting the probate of 1953, Divon explains.

Both parties presented historical claims to the court. Heirs of Y. presented the results of the detailed inquiry, including documents kept at Yad Vashem and the official archive of the city of Lodz. These records included the ghetto Judenrat's lists of deaths. Y.'s family claimed that for decades they were unable to determine which of the couple had been murdered first, because the Polish archives were behind the Iron Curtain and were inaccessible.  

Now, with the Iron Curtain down and the material accessible, experts on behalf of Y.'s family claimed that B. was killed in 1942, while Y. lived on for two more years and was only killed in the summer of 1944, based on documents showing his change of address at that time. The precise date of his murder is not known, but clearly he was murdered after his wife, so his family is the legal heir of his assets.

The ruling quotes members of Y.'s family from 1953, saying that "relatives of the deceased wife, upon receiving part of the estate through perjury, in effect stole the deceased's property." They argued that it was time to give justice to the deceased, worker would "surely, if he had been asked, clearly instructed that his property be given to his flesh and blood relatives."

B's family countered that the authenticity and nature and substance of the new documents presented in court could not be tested. These papers are a historic source but not official certification of the type the court requires, they argued. B's family added that historic research acknowledged that the documents from the Lodz Ghetto are inaccurate and some contain errors, such as identity theft of a murdered person to help another person survive.

B.'s family also argued that attempting to claim that testimony given in 1953 was perjurious is akin to the Nazis' attempt "to turn our Jewish brethren in the Diapora into ash and dust". The court criticized that comparison, saying it was unworthy and would better have never been said. 

Last month the Tel Aviv family court voided the probate from 1953, ruling that the asset in Bnei Brak belongs to the husband's family. In this case, said the court explaining its unusual decision, "the principle of exposing the truth" supersedes the principle of the finality of ruling – which mean that a court ruling becomes final after it is handed down and the time for appeal has passed, because of the circumstances surrounding the Holocaust.

No question, Divon says, canceling a probate from 1953 is extraordinary; but the curt decided to relate to the case in a special way because of the special circumstances of the family tragedy. The court elected to ignore the time that had passed because of the new documents that were revealed. 

At the end of its ruling, the court made a powerful statement. 

"When writing this ruling, the court was required to peruse numerous documents brought before it, including documents of the Lodz Ghetto which engage in and touch on the most painful places for our people – the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe," the court wrote. "Dealing with in these materials, feelings and thoughts arose anew that it would have been wiser for the parties to this case, who are the relatives remaining from their the large family of the deceased and his wife who died in the Holocaust, to study and delve into these documents in order to evoke the memory of their family, not in order to gain some part or other in the deceased's estate."