Israeli Restitution Agency Sitting on NIS 1b as Poor Survivors Struggle to Make Ends Meet

Agency in charge of restitution of unclaimed pre-state Israel property of Holocaust victims charged with not distributing funds quickly or directly to survivors.

It was hard not to be moved by the plea for financial support made to the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee in April by Dora Roth on behalf of her fellow Holocaust survivors. “What have you done with the money? What? The sight on television of Holocaust survivors who don’t have heat in the winter, who don’t have money for food is to your shame. Permit us to die in dignity.”

The financial distress that Roth expressed was nothing new, but over the past year it has been more in the public eye. Since he entered politics, Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, who became finance minister following the January election, has made it a point to express his concern for the plight of the country’s Holocaust survivors. Lapid, whose father Yosef “Tommy” Lapid was himself a survivor of the Holocaust, saw to it that a provision in his new party’s platform addressed the subject.

Two months ago, Finance Minister Lapid also signed an order increasing government stipends paid to Holocaust survivors. And, on his Facebook page on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, he expressed the hope that no Holocaust survivors would be spending the holiday alone. Nonetheless, the newly elected finance minister has suffered the wrath of some of Israel’s Holocaust survivors.

They are angry that an official roundtable group that was to have convened to deal with issues of concern to them has not met. They are also upset over the decision to transfer responsibility for Holocaust survivors from the Finance Ministry to the Social Affairs Ministry, and over the fact that approval of allocation of most of the funding for survivors is only slated for next year. And in an era of government austerity, they are also concerned that the government will not deliver on assurances of state support.

Yet in the face of the financial difficulties facing many Holocaust survivors, there is an entity that could address the problem to a considerable extent. An agency called the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets has large sums at its disposal that are not being claimed.

The agency, which was founded at the initiative of Lapid’s father, Tommy, among others, was established in 2006 following hearings by an investigative committee headed by former MK Colette Avital. The agency currently has a billion shekels worth of assets that belonged to Jews who perished in the Holocaust and that could now be put to use to provide financial aid to those Holocaust survivors in need during their remaining years.

The initial purpose of the agency was different, however. It was to locate property that had been owned in prestate Israel by those who perished in World War II, and to find their rightful heirs.

Even now, however, in keeping with the Knesset law that set up the agency, and in light of the realization that heirs will not be found for all of the property recovered, it is distributing about NIS 100 million a year to needy survivors (since its launch it has distributed about half a billion shekels for this purpose). Some of the assistance is provided directly to Holocaust survivors and the rest is given through other organizations that assist them.

For some Holocaust survivors, however, the process of getting the funds may be too slow.

The average age of the 190,000 survivors in Israel is 84, and a thousand of them pass away in an average month, aggravating the task of getting those who need it assistance as quickly as possible.

In recent years, complaints have surfaced over how the money has been distributed. According to its annual report for 2009, of the NIS 100 million the agency distributed then, NIS 75 million went to survivors directly - amounting to NIS 6,000 per survivor. In 2012, however, half went directly to survivors, amounting to NIS 4,800 per recipient, with the rest going to survivor organizations, special projects and programming in remembrance of the Holocaust.

The agency says it does not decide who gets the money. That is decided, it says, by the government - initially the Finance Ministry, as well as the National Insurance Institute.

“When it comes to distribution of money to nonprofit organizations, the criteria are difficult and almost impossible to comply with,” says Zvi Meitar, the chairman of the organization Yesh, representing children and orphans of the Holocaust.

A glance at the agency’s website, which can be found at www.hashava.org.il, reveals about 3,000 pages of assets, with 20 items per page featuring unclaimed cash, real estate, artwork and financial securities. All told, some 67,000 items are listed. After returning about NIS 85 million in assets and paying out another NIS 500 million to survivors in assistance, it is still in charge of about a billion shekels in assets, most of which remains unclaimed.

“We are not a Holocaust survivor assistance organization,” noted Ofir Porat, the agency’s legal adviser. “We give them money, but our role is to address a historical injustice. For 70 years, the State of Israel has pointed an accusing finger at countries around the world regarding the assets that Jews left behind there, but didn’t check what was happening in its own backyard. The agency was established as a last accord of its kind in the world.”

Holocaust survivors in Israel.
Alex Levac
AP