JNF seeking owners of Holocaust-era land in Israel

NEW YORK — Swiss banks and Italian insurance companies are trying to settle past accounts, and now the Jewish National Fund wants to do the same.

The JNF, best known for its blue charity boxes and making Israel's deserts bloom, recently published a list of more than 1,800 people who, more than five decades ago, purchased some 3,400 acres of land in what is now the central and northern regions of Israel.

After the Jewish state was born in 1948, and these landowners didn't show up to claim their property, it was assumed that they had perished in the Holocaust.

Israel gave the land to Keren Kayemet L'Yisrael, the Israeli side of JNF.

Starting in 1948, Keren Kayemet "made every attempt to find these families" by notifying them by mail and publishing their names in newspapers, said Russell Robinson, JNF's executive vice president.

In 1975, Israel passed a law converting Keren Kayemet's trusteeship of the land to outright ownership.

Now, however, assets that once belonged to Jews who died during World War II are coming under scrutiny, from life insurance policies to valuable works of art. As a result, some Jewish groups are coming forward to offer descendants of those who perished an opportunity to stake their claims.

"Times have changed," Robinson said. "Information is easier dispensed through newspaper and television, and with all of the revelations that have happened with Swiss bank accounts, we felt it was due diligence to give it one more attempt."

In late April, JNF published in Israeli newspapers the names of people who own the unclaimed land.

Since then, JNF and Keren Kayemet have received some 1,000 phone calls — most of them in Israel but some in New York — but none has panned out.

The land, most of it in the Hadera area, north of Tel Aviv, has been used in the intervening years in a variety of ways. Some of it has become residential, some has been used by moshavim, farming collectives, and some has been paved over to become roads. Still other land remains undeveloped.

Those who have called the agency have been unable to substantiate their claims to the property, Robinson said.

"We have had a lot of phone calls, but the majority of them are saying that they heard their grandfather had bought property, and that was all they knew," Robinson said.

"Any time property was purchased, a document, a deed was given," he said. Though these papers were unlikely to have survived the war, even a letter from a surviving relative from that era establishing that there was such property in the family would suffice, he said.

Even if someone did produce the right kind of paperwork, though, it is unlikely that anyone would be able to take over the property that has since found other uses.

In that case, heirs would be compensated for the property, Robinson said.

Income from each parcel has been kept in a special fund, he said, from which taxes and maintenance costs have been paid. In some cases, the cost of owning the property has exceeded its value, and so an heir would receive nothing.

In other cases, a token amount, of say $100, might be awarded. In still others, the property is worth a more substantial amount, he said.