Pre-Holocaust Jewish fortunes will never be recovered

On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, a former leading official regrets “political decision” forgoing efforts to return Jewish property in order to promote Israeli diplomacy in Eastern Europe.

By: Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News

“The Holocaust was not only the largest mass-murder in the history of mankind; it was also the greatest robbery of all-time,” says Bobby Brown, Israel’s leading expert on Nazi era property restitution, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Brown now laments the fact that in recent years Israel and World Jewry have largely given up on its efforts to recover lost Jewish property.

Brown had been the central figure in the Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Task force (Project HEART) a Holocaust restitution project, created by the Israeli Government to locate property taken from Holocaust victims and their heirs. Brown had been involved in Holocaust restitution for several decades, going back to his service as Diaspora Affairs Adviser during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term starting in 1996.

Operation Heart created a data base to locate personal property  seized by the Nazis or held by post-war governments, and provides the rightful owners with the means and information to seek restitution for the stolen property. Efforts to reach people worldwide included advertising, media exposure, and encouraging Jewish NGO’s to spread the word to their members and to the Jewish community at large. The various types of lost property included real estate, movable items such as jewelry, art and intangible belongings such as stocks, bonds, savings accounts and insurance policies.

In 2011, the data base grew to include more than two million pieces of property that belonged to Jews before the start of World War II. Beginning in April 2014, the project lost 95% of its funding and the efforts to recovery lost property are largely dormant.

In an exclusive interview, Brown told World Israel News, “The survivors of the Holocaust and their heirs had nothing left after the war. Homes, bank accounts, insurance policies were all gone. The Gestapo stole great artwork owned by Jews in Paris, post-war governments in Eastern Europe seized and redistributed property. Nothing can bring back those who were murdered, but I had hoped that there could be some justice with the return of property that belonged to them or their heirs.”

“After all of our efforts, only about 10-15 percent of the stolen property was returned. There was a lot of heat and smoke, but not enough action. Governments, particularly in Eastern Europe had intentionally set up bureaucratic and legal obstacles that frustrated Jewish organizations and the Israeli government. We largely gave up the fight. It pains me to know that paintings stolen from Jews 75 years ago are still on display in some of the world’s leading museums,” said Brown.

According to Brown, “The Jewish people lost the equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars in value (by today’s estimated values) and only about 10-15 percent was recovered. The worst offenders are the nations of Eastern Europe, especially Poland. During the period between 1996 and 2003 some progress was made, largely due to pressure from the United States.”

“What is most painful to me is that the Jewish establishment and the State of Israel largely gave up the fight. The Foreign Ministry’s priority was to improved relations with Eastern European countries that we had been trying to pressure to return Jewish property. The government has cut most funding for this effort and the result is that justice will not be done,” he said.