So far, nobody in New Jersey has responded to a search launched earlier this month for beneficiaries of some 55,000 unclaimed Israeli-based bank accounts, properties, and shares bought before World War II. But board members of the Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets in Israel are hopeful that many North Americans will claim what is rightfully theirs in response to a media campaign targeting Jewish communities.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, hundreds of Jews took an active part in supporting the Zionist dream by investing in what was then Palestine. Following the devastation of European Jewry, many of these assets were never claimed. The RHVA, set up by the State of Israel in 2006, catalogues and collects the assets and seeks heirs of the original investors. Its Website (www.hashava.org.il/eng) contains instructions on submitting an application to request restitution of an asset on its list.
“With the start of our initiative in North America, we also have opened a 24-hour hotline,” said Zvi Kanor, CEO of the organization. The number is +972-3-516-4117.
The RHVA board includes three members from the Ministry of Justice and six from the private sector. Its operating budget is 2 percent per year of assets identified and collected, with the aim of reducing the budget each year until all possible assets are claimed.
Kanor explained that the RHVA is still adding to its list of unclaimed properties and accounts, which include shares from the Jewish Colonial Trust (the parent company of the Anglo Palestine Bank, which later became Bank Leumi) as well as other Israeli financial institutions. “Within the coming three to four years, we anticipate finding all the assets in Israel,” he said.
The RHVA is working with Prof. Yossi Katz, chairman for Jewish National Fund Studies at Bar-Ilan University, whose four books on the subject include “The Business of Settlement: Private Entrepreneurship in the Jewish Settlement of Palestine, 1900-1914.” After the British Mandate, some of the unclaimed properties were turned over to the JNF.
“Gathering all the information was a big task and a big problem,” said Kanor. “Some of the documents of one company involved were destroyed in a fire in 1955.” The RHVA also drew on resources of Yad Vashem-Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority and hired two outsourcing companies to track down unclaimed bank accounts. The organization is in arbitration with Bank Leumi.
“Bank Hapoalim and Mercantile Bank have already returned the money, but not yet the stocks because it’s difficult to determine their worth today,” said Kanor. “I believe within two months we should know their value. We are also trying to get to assets held by two other banks, Mizrachi and Mercantile Discount.”
“After finding all the assets, we still have to find all those entitled to them,” Kanor continued. “We will not close until then.”
Within Israel, only about 12 to 13 percent of the recovered assets were claimed. The rest benefited Holocaust survivors. “We allocated more than 120 million shekels [equivalent to $32.3 million] to Holocaust victims in 2010,” he said.
After the North American launch of the project is established, Kanor expects to move the initiative to other countries where large numbers of Jews lived before the war.