Some shun money, property, Jewish roots; others overcome with joy. Inside Israel’s little-known restitution effort.
It’s like an episode of the late-‘50s hit TV series “The Millionaire.”
Elinor Kroitoru, sitting at her corner desk in Petach Tikva with a historical map of Israel on the wall behind her, dials a long string of numbers that connect her to an apartment in a town in Poland or to another in Moldova. Kroitoru is head of the asset location and search division of the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets. And like the mysterious millionaire who dispensed a life-changing check to a perfect stranger in the TV series, she is calling bearing a gift of sorts, but one heavy with the burden of the past.
It might be the middle of the night, and the recipient, a man in his 80s, say, might be startled. The caller, like a bolt out of the blue, is telling of a valuable plot of land in the north of Israel to which the man is now heir. It might be all too much to bear for a man who likely lost his whole family in the Holocaust, opening a fresh wound in a long-closed scab.
“We found a man in Poland in the last few weeks who remembers the cousin [who bought real estate in Israel], and he gave us a lot of information,” said Kroitoru, a 33-year-old lawyer and mother of two who lives in Herzliya.
“But then he said, ‘My children don’t know they are Jewish, and I don’t want to deal with this because it is too much for me,’” she recalled. “He is 84 or 85 and a survivor himself,” though the Company is not able to say how he survived the war and was reluctant to pry. “He chose to live in Poland after the war, and he lives there as a Christian,” Kroitoru said.
“One of my staff members who spoke with him on the phone in Russian asked for details about his children should something happen to him, so we could pursue this in the future. He told her, ‘I beg you, please let it go. Don’t look for my children. I don’t want my children to know about this at all.’”
It is one story among many for Kroitoru and her staff of 17 at the Company — stunning in its emotional impact and what is says about the havoc the Holocaust wreaked on people who survived it. In its hunt for the heirs of unclaimed Holocaust-era property in Israel — assets totaling tens of millions of dollars — the Company has reunited two relatives, each of whom thought the other had died, restored assets to their rightful owners and also contacted heirs, like the Polish man, who wanted nothing to do with the property.
Kroitoru is in a sense like a Nazi hunter in reverse. Instead of running down clues to bring the perpetrators of the Holocaust to justice, she and her staff comb through Internet records, land deeds, phone records, pre-Holocaust archival records and special Holocaust-related genealogical sources — some private and some public — in a tortuous search for historical justice. Their goal is to reinstate the unclaimed assets from victims of the Shoah to their legal heirs.
This is not the job Kroitoru was hired to do. She was initially hired in April 2007 to work as an attorney for the Company’s public information center. Five months later, she was told they were creating an heir-search division and was offered the chance to head it.
“I said yes because I felt a bit bored,” she recalled.
Asked if it has been a daunting challenge, Kroitoru replied: “Have you ever tried to build a thousand-piece puzzle? We do it with one hand behind our backs because of a lack of information and because documents have been destroyed. It can be exciting and frustrating — even at the same time.”
She said there are genealogical researchers on her staff and that she herself has learned the tools of the trade. “It’s not a profession that you learn in a university,” Kroitoru said. “We do historical research with archives and genealogical sites in order to build a family tree for each asset owner.”
She said they are in constant touch with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, as well as the largest Holocaust archives in the world, which are kept in the German town of Bad Arolsen.
The work has had a profound effect on Kroitoru.
“I cannot explain the feeling of ringing someone in the middle of the night and asking whether he is the son or nephew of so and so and then being told, ‘Yes, what do you want from me?’” Kroitoru said. “I tell him that his relative was a great Zionist and that he owned property in Israel.
“Some are very excited and want to learn more. Others say, ‘It is so painful for me — I lost my family — just leave me alone.’ That’s happened a few times. Some people have left Judaism and say they don’t want to acknowledge their Jewish roots at all.”
About the response of the Polish man, Kroitoru said she found it “disappointing.”
“We do this work out of Zionism and because we believe we owe a moral debt to the victims [of the Holocaust],” she explained. “We think how sad it is that a family perished and that now this man doesn’t want to rekindle the memory. It’s very sad for us. We feel that part of our work is commemorating these people.”
The Knesset created the Company in 2007 to locate the legal heirs of those who had assets — real estate, bank accounts, contents of safe deposit boxes, pieces of art, stocks or bonds — in Israel before the Nazis murdered them. The organization has a list of about 60,000 assets for which it is trying to locate heirs. It has published that list on a Web site — www.hashava.org.il — that includes directions about the restitution process. And Kroitoru said that for a while she read the names of property owners on the radio in Israel in the hope heirs would contact her.
To date, Kroitoru said that of the 60,000 assets on file, about 12 percent has been restituted or is in the final stages of restitution; more than $6 million has been restituted to a few hundred individuals. Bank Leumi, she said, “has yet to pay us 300 million shekels [about $75 million] from 4,000 [dormant] bank accounts.”
The restitution rate in other countries, such as Belgium, Austria and France, is about 10 percent, Kroitoru pointed out.
Colette Avital is a board member of the Company and a former Knesset member who in 2000 headed a parliamentary committee dealing with the location and restitution of Holocaust-era assets. She said legal action might soon be initiated against Bank Leumi if it does not release that money.
“What worries me is that assets are not being returned at the speed I would have wanted,” she said. “There are people waiting for years and it’s terribly disappointing and embarrassing.”
The real estate to which the Polish man is heir covers several acres and is now being used as farmland by a kibbutz in northern Israel; the kibbutz pays rent to the Company.
When no heirs are found after a thorough search, assets are sold and the proceeds used for the care of survivors and for Holocaust education. The Company itself operates on a budget of about $5 million from cash whose heirs could not be located. By law, it must go out of business after 15 years.
“We have been thinking what we will do with all of the historical material we have gathered once we finish our work,” Kroitoru said. “Do we give it to Yad Vashem [Israel’s central Holocaust museum and archives], create a separate museum or give it to the government?”
In some cases, Kroitoru finds that the lives of the heirs she has unearthed have taken unexpected turns. Such was the case with a woman in the United States who told the Company, “I’m not Jewish anymore, and I don’t care.”
The woman was heir to a one-pound note invested in the Jewish Colonial Trust, a bank created at the turn of the last century to fund Zionist activities in Israel. It is now worth $500.
“That is cash money, there is no sentimental value to it, and since she said she didn’t want it, we don’t try too hard” to pursue the matter with her, Kroitoru said.
But in other cases in which people have dismissed the call, saying it was “too much for them to deal with,” Kroitoru said her staff will wait a few months and call back.
“Many times they change their mind,” she said. “People often need time to think it over and when we call back, they say they can deal with it now. Or we will ask if they could refer us to another relative.”
Kroitoru said she was reminded of a case in which a man filed a claim and said that since his sister had died in England, he was the only heir.
“We said we had to have proof, so we did a search in England and found on her tombstone an inscription that said, ‘In loving memory of our late mother, wife and sister,’” she said. “We then realized she had children and are now looking for her daughter.”
In another case, the Company had to find the heirs of a couple who had a joint bank account. Both the brother of the wife and the sister of the husband were found.
“Both are in their 90s and did not know about the other, thinking they were the last to survive — and they lived only about 11 miles apart in the center of Israel,” Kroitoru said. “When we approached their children, they showed us the identical photo of the husband and wife.”
Because of their parents’ frailty, Kroitoru said the children asked the Company to allow them to inform their parents that the other was still alive. Because of their age, she said she personally handed each of them checks for $10,000.
She said she does not believe the sister understood what was happening, but that the brother “began to cry” when he received his check.
“I met him last summer in his small apartment,” Kroitoru said. “We were sweating and he had only a fan — no air conditioning — which is very difficult in Israel,” Kroitoru said. “I saw the conditions he and his wife were living under. He needed that money for his everyday life. He was very, very moved. We were all crying. It’s difficult to stay unmoved in such a situation.”
Kroitoru said she believes many of the heirs live in North and South America. One of those who were contacted by the Company is Maurice Liebman of Friday Harbor, Wash. He said he is heir to a little over an acre of land in Holon, Israel, bought by his grandfather, Yankel Liebmann, at the turn of the last century. He said his grandfather had children from two marriages and that he understands a son from his other marriage has also claimed the property.
Liebman said his mother first told him of the property in 1968 when he was 30. He contacted a lawyer in Israel, who reported that the city of Holon had condemned the property, seized it for its own use and was not obligated to pay the owner. He said that when he visited Israel in 1992, he contacted another law firm that looked into the matter and learned that the city never did anything with the land.
“I tried to recover it, claiming I was my grandfather’s only heir,” Liebman said. “I was told I had to provide a death certificate for my grandparents.”
He finally managed to get a copy of his grandfather’s death certificate, which refers to another woman at the time of his death. That led to the discovery of his grandfather’s two other children.
“I then did a global search for my cousins, but I dropped the matter in 1996 when the statute of limitations ran out and I had already spent thousands of dollars,” he said.
The Israeli law was changed a few years ago to bar municipalities from terminating property ownership by confiscation. The Company then contacted him and said it would handle his case once a court declared him and his cousin the sole heirs of the property.
“They are really doing a mitzvah for heirs whose lives were disrupted by the war and who have interests in Israel,” Liebman said of the Company.
Kroitoru said it is the Company’s belief that “we have not found all of the assets in Israel because there is real estate with no owners that has not been turned over to us.”
As for the Polish man who so thoroughly renounced his claim for the farmland in northern Israel, Kroitoru isn’t sure how the case will ultimately play out.
Asked if her organization might shelve the case and revisit it after the heir dies with the intent of locating his children, Kroitoru replied: “The assets belong to him, and it is his will that we not contact his children. We have to respect that.
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