A quick glance at the list of assets posted on the website of the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets reminds one of an airport arrivals and departures signboard. Side by side in a large table appear the names of cities and countries in Europe (Warsaw-Poland; Riga-Latvia; Lwow-Poland; Romania, Austria, Holland Czechoslovakia and more), alongside serial numbers composed of numerals and letters (A69084, A1001), with a different status assigned to each one: “in process of being returned”; “request submitted”; “not yet submitted to the Company.”
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A more careful examination of the information in the table shows that no flights are involved. All the information relates to assets that are located here in Israel. This list includes 60,611 items, separated into three categories: real estate, cash and securities. They belong to Jews from Europe who purchased land, apartments and houses in Israel before the Holocaust. They deposited their money in local banks and purchased securities for investing in the land and in the Zionist enterprise. Some of them did so out of Zionist ideals, wanting to invest with the intention of settling here later. The Holocaust prevented them from reaping their investments.
Even now, almost 70 years after the end of World War II, no heirs have been found for most of these assets. These were passed around between different institutions, including the Custodian of Enemy Property and the Guardian General at the Justice Ministry. Some were managed by banks or other agencies such as the Jewish National Fund. For many years neither the State nor these agencies made any effort to trace the heirs.
A change took place at the end of the 1990s, partly due to a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry headed by MK Colette Avital, which led to the establishment of the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets, in 2006. Its first years were plagued by problems and difficulties. Directors succeeded one another rapidly and the State Comptroller noted deficiencies in its operation.
Currently, the company operates out of new offices in Petah Tikva, having undergone re-organization under its fifth director, Dr Yisrael Peleg. The company includes lawyers, accountants and experts in information retrieval, all trying to correct a historic injustice. Their goal is to identify lost assets, find their rightful heirs and return the former to the latter.
‘Last will of Zionists who perished’
Peleg sees this as a mission. “We operate out of a deep sense of mission, intent on correcting an old injustice. It’s more than a mission, it’s a bequest. It’s the last will of Zionists who perished in the Holocaust. We trace their property in this country and return it to their heirs, here or abroad.”
Underlying these words is complex and sometimes frustrating work, often involving contending with big banks and powerful institutions such as the JNF who hold the properties, securities and bonds of the murdered victims. Other disputes are with museums which hold art works, Judaic artefacts or books whose owners didn’t survive the camps.
Locating the missing assets is only half the job. The second half, no less complex, is the tracing of the heirs. The company claims that it initiates searches, acting not only in response to requests by the public. Their activities include the construction of family trees through genealogical research, poring over data bases that include documents found in the Zionist archives, the State Archives and in Yad Vashem. They also conduct searches on Google and Facebook.
One such case was that of Rivka Rotecki, born in 1890 in Grajewo, Poland. She raised her family in Antwerp, Belgium. In 1934 she bought two plots of land south of Tel Aviv, in an area which is now part of Holon. Selling the plots was the Bnei Binyamin Bank, established by agricultural towns with the purpose of buying land and establishing new communities. Rivka bought the land through an intermediary, her sister’s husband who lived in Jerusalem. She signed the required power of attorney in Antwerp, in December 1933. She was murdered 11 years later by the Nazis, leaving behind these two plots in Palestine.
Seventy years have gone by since then. A few years ago the Company for Location and Restitution located these plots, which were registered as abandoned property. They were located in some sand dunes slated for construction. Last year an assessor estimated that these two plots, covering 300 square meters each, are worth 715,000 shekels ($192,000) today.
A success story
Successful historical and archival detective work by the Company located the heirs as well. They will now receive the money left behind by Rotecki. It was a long and convoluted road which passed through many stations.
The bill of sale and the power of attorney used in the 1934 purchase were found at the Land Registry Office. Alongside these the company found a letter sent this year to Rotecki from a bank in Belgium, as well as copies of deeds to the plots. Her signature was found on one of these documents, signed a decade before her murder.
At Yad Vashem the company found a “page of testimony” filled by her sister in 1955, in Jerusalem, in her memory. Through the population registry her sister’s daughter was found. She gave additional information about the family. It turned out that Rotecki had two sons from a first marriage, and that they were living in the United States. She had a second child from her second marriage but he too was murdered in the Holocaust, along with his parents. The National Archive in Belgium yielded further information about her family, including their names. Her son’s memoirs were found on Google. The heir’s granddaughter was found on Facebook.
The “Rotecki File”, as it is labeled at the Company, is a classic success story. Most assets do not find their way back to their rightful heirs. The many years that have elapsed since the properties were acquired, the Second World War and the Holocaust which wiped out entire families and the fact that the state did not try to locate heirs in a timely fashion make this mission impossible in many cases.
Assets that are located are managed by the company until the legal heirs are located. It currently manages assets worth 1 billion shekels ($270 million). It holds 538 properties worth 619 million shekels ($167 million), as well as financial assets managed by investment houses worth 162 million shekels ($44 million), and bank stocks worth 417 million shekels ($112 million). The company plans to sell assets worth 50 million shekels by the end of the year. Over the next two years it will sell further assets, at 100 million shekels a year. It will be dismantled in 2017 with remaining assets going to the State.
Most of the money remains without heirs. The company has received 11,000 requests from potential heirs. Nine thousand have been dealt with so far. Of these, 2,054 ended in heirs receiving their property, worth 118 million shekels ($32 million). An additional 236 properties worth 215 million shekels ($58 million) are in the process of being restored to their owners. Recent legal amendments will speed things up.
The company’s goals are not to help survivors but to trace the property of murdered victims and return it to the heirs. Most, however, remain unclaimed. Therefore, some of the money made by the company by selling assets with no heirs has been allocated to survivors and to Holocaust commemoration. The company transfers 100 million shekels annually for these purposes, through direct grants to survivors or through help in buying food or obtaining medical attention or spiritual assistance and support.
When the company is dismantled in 2017, remaining funds will be transferred to the Treasury. It has not yet been decided what will be done with them.