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Writer: Israel Has WWII Assets

By Jack Katzenell, Associated Press Writer Thursday, April 13, 2000; 2:12 p.m. EDT

JERUSALEM  Israel, which has criticized Switzerland and other countries for failing to return assets of Jews who perished in the Holocaust, also failed to return wartime assets, a researcher said Thursday.

Until this year, Israel made no effort to make the existence of property it held publicly known or find the owners or their heirs, said Yossi Katz, who has just published a book on the subject.

However, unlike some European banks and other financial institutions, Israel never tried to conceal the existence of the assets nor refused to return them if a claimant had proof of ownership, Katz, a professor of geography and history at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University said.

In his 350-page book, "Forgotten Property," Katz writes that land, houses, and other assets in what was then British Mandatory Palestine were purchased by European Jews, many of whom later died in the Holocaust.

Although no definitive assessment of the assets exists, the documents he compiled show they were substantial and included shares, securities, bank deposits and insurance policies, as well as buildings, urban land and agricultural land, Katz told The Associated Press.

"I never imagined the scale of the property which the documents would reveal," he said. "Some of the land is in the center of (the Tel Aviv suburbs of) Bat Yam or Holon, and its value is astronomical."

Some of the real estate is held to this day by the government Custodian of Abandoned Property, some by a semiofficial body called the Jewish National Fund and some by banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions.

According to the 1971 Government Year Book, the finance ministry at the time empowered the Custodian to sell some of the real estate, but the present custodian said recently he does not know if any was sold, or if so, how much.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Michael Melchior said that Israel must restore the property to its rightful owners but rejected comparing Israel's record with that of European countries who "plundered the Jews and afterwards sent them to the concentration camps."

Israel has helped lead legal action against European banks, insurance companies and other institutions to force them to restore unclaimed wartime accounts and policies or property plundered by the Nazis to Holocaust survivors and their heirs.

At Katz' prodding, a parliamentary committee has been set up to study the problem and submit recommendations to the government. In addition, Israel published a list in January of 1,000 unclaimed bank accounts from the Holocaust era in an effort to help survivors and their heirs recover assets, and promised to publish another 14,000 accounts and other government-held assets next year.

The Israel Museum also recently restored a painting that it had determined was stolen to its rightful owner.

Katz said those measures were not enough.

He called for an independent commission to conduct detailed research aimed at locating all the property and establishing who owns it.

The government, he said, should also make an active effort to find the owners or their heirs. In cases where that proves impossible, Katz called for legislation empowering the commission to seize the assets and use them for the benefit of Holocaust survivors or for Holocaust research.

(c) Copyright 2000 The Associated Press


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