"Battle for Holocaust Assets Roils Israel"

From Timothy Bauer
Reno, Nevada

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NOVEMBER 12, 2008
Battle for Holocaust Assets Roils Israel

""RAMAT GAN, Israel – The global quest to ferret out money and property left behind by Jews killed in the Holocaust is now targeting Israel, and investigators say it’s proving at least as difficult in the Jewish state as it did in Europe.

Estelle Sapir displays a photo of her late father Joseph Sapir, a World War II death camp victim, during a news conference in 1998. Ms. Sapir announced she had reached a settlement with Credit Suisse over her claim on her father.""

Many big banks and the government itself have resisted efforts to claim hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for bank deposits, land, corporate shares, art and other assets that investigators say once belonged to Jews killed by the Nazis and their allies.

“I cannot say that the Israeli establishment has been, or is, happy about the return of properties,” says Avraham Roet, the recently retired chairman of the Company for Location & Restitution of Holocaust Victims Assets Ltd. The private firm, often referred to simply as the Company, was created by the Israeli parliament after its investigators identified up to 9,000 bank accounts suspected of belonging to Holocaust victims.

Thousands of European Jews deposited or invested tidy sums here during the decades before World War II, often without visiting what was then British-controlled Palestine. After many were killed in the Holocaust, their substantial assets went unclaimed, passing into the hands of the government of the newly created nation of Israel and some of its largest banks.

While some Israeli institutions have challenged the validity of the Company’s claims, they are generally loath to say much about any of this in public. Mr. Roet and others say the institutions privately argue they should be treated more gently than their European counterparts because they are in a different position than banks and governments that actively assisted the Nazis. They also say any assets once owned by Holocaust victims that were subsumed over the years served a public good because they went toward building a Jewish homeland.

“They said, ‘We are not really cheating the survivors. It’s all within the Jewish community, within Israel. It’s not the same as it being held by the Swiss,’” Michael Bazyler, an expert on Holocaust assets from the Chapman University School of Law in California, says Israeli bankers told him in 2006. “That was sort of their excuse. And I’m saying, ‘Wait a second. It’s not your money.’”

Mr. Roet, whose two sisters died in a concentration camp near Auschwitz, Poland, started investigating and targeting some of Israel’s most powerful institutions after his firm opened last year. The 80-year-old stepped down from the Company’s top job in August but remained a director and its most public face.

Earlier this year, he went after Bank Leumi Le-Israel B.M., Israel’s second-largest financial institution, claiming it owed more than $34 million, a figure derived from a government-approved formula for fixing the value of roughly 1,300 accounts once held at the bank.

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