The various stories behind the abandoned properties in Israel
By Barbara Sofer
December 20, 2019
In our small country, where so much of our lives is based on personal connections, we might assume that there isn't much so-called abandoned property. We'd be wrong. Tens of thousands of cases of unclaimed real estate and bank accounts are classified "abandoned." No known owners. No known heirs.
Like most modern states, Israel has an abandoned property division that focuses on recovery and management of unclaimed property. But ours is different. We're the only country that, through the work of a special unit, actively seeks out rightful owners or heirs. This is a legal obligation, but the search and recovery of ownership often goes beyond dry administrative tasks.
I'm talking about this with my young and diligent friend Esther Fuerster, whose official position is as an investigator at the Unit for Location and Restitution of Unclaimed Property in the office of the Administrator-General in the Justice Ministry. In short, detective Fuerster.
Abandoned property in Israel reflects not only personal vagaries but also the vicissitudes of our national history.
The English version of the website of the Administrator-General's office, which among its roles is charged with the receipt and administration of all property bestowed on Israel, has an unusually emotive overview for a government office. An excerpt:
"For many years Jews and non-Jews alike have expressed their love and commitment to the State of Israel through their generosity and their support of projects and institutions in the fields of health, education, welfare, scientific and medical research and other humanitarian and charitable programs.
"We have designed this site as a means to strengthen the bond between Israel and its many friends and supporters worldwide and serve as a guide as to how you can contribute to the development of Israel in order to fulfill the biblical prophecy of being light to the nations."
Fuerster came to work in the unit two years ago, soon after making aliyah. She was born in Poland and lived in England, graduating from London Metropolitan University with an honors degree in international relations and law. Many Israelis have died without leaving a will and without known family members who could legally inherit their estates, she says. Many of the unclaimed properties belonged to persons who came to Israel before or shortly after World War II or descendants of Europeans and Americans who bought property before 1948. The unit is charged with managing the property, as trustees, in the best interests of the owners, until they find them or, more often, their heirs.
Every day Fuerster and colleagues investigate scores of cases of abandoned properties, some new and others a century old.
"Digitizing of archives and the proliferation of genealogical websites have made new sources available so that previous cold cases can be solved," Fuerster says. "The popularity of sharing personal genealogical information online and communicating through social media helps us reach relatives whom we couldn't ever have traced just a few years ago."
Fuerster, who speaks fluent Polish, English and Hebrew, is often involved in negotiating for access to archives behind the former Iron Curtain, where the authorities may still be suspicious of inquiries. She also needs to debunk fallacious claims. Solving each mystery requires thinking out of the box, and, as she believes, an occasional Heavenly assist.
Such was a recent case. All she had for a pre-state Germany-born property owner was a name change form with his original and new names.
"The entire branch of his family was murdered in the Shoah," Fuerster said. "We heard from local sources that the man had died in the 1960s in a car accident somewhere in Canada."
Thirty-eight million people live in Canada.
She managed to get the name of an American cousin and phoned him.
"He didn't have much information. Nonetheless, we spoke on the phone for almost an hour," said Fuerster. "He gave me more of a story really, no dates of birth nor names."
She did get something valuable: the sense that finding the lost branch of the family was important.
A logical place to start would be Canadian Jewish records, but nothing turned up. The property owner was neither a synagogue member nor a member of a Jewish communal organization. No Jewish cemetery records. Fuerster investigated Ministry of Interior and general Canadian postal records; still nothing.
"From my conversation with the distant cousin, I knew finding the records wasn't about the money, but about rescuing family history. I pieced together that I was looking for a man who'd survived the war as a Jew, having fought as a teenager for various foreign armies in some of the bloodiest battles. He was nearly executed by the French, but saved by an aunt who lived in Israel under the British Mandate. After World War II, he moved to Canada, married and had children. He and an infant son died in a car crash. No one knew the name of his children or his wife, also a Holocaust survivor.
"With Hashem's help I managed to find the one person who could help me: a police officer in Canada who agreed to assist."
The family thought the car accident was in Quebec more than 50 years ago. The amazing police officer reviewed thousands of files. At last, he found the detailed accident records.
The restitution process could now begin.
"We are impelled by the Torah mitzvah of hashavat aveidah, the obligation to care for and return lost property," says Fuerster. "Our devoted team has a stunning success rate, tracing and contacting the rightful owners in the great majority of cases. It's wonderful to see so many people reunited with their family property and, often more importantly, with family they never knew they had. Working here has shown me just how dedicated individuals can be and the remarkable results they can achieve."
But more important is the letter that Fuerster received from the cousin.
I am writing to express my gratitude on your dedication and the effort you put in to find the lost branch of our family.
I already spoke to my cousin's daughter, and then received a long letter from her. We plan to meet. It was a brief, very warm exchange of preliminary information.
I think that I understand why we had no positive responses to our inquiries over the years. The mother (my cousin's wife) was institutionalized, but informed whomever that the kids should be raised as Protestants.
The kids grew up all in orphanages or with temporary adoptive families in Canada. Therefore, the Jewish organizations knew nothing of them.
Anyway, they are our family. We now face the task to absorb them as family. They grew up as Protestant. They know nothing of their father's family or of Judaism, but wish to learn.
This is more evidence of how families were broken and dispersed because of the Holocaust.
Again, all our deepest thanks.
Your efforts are the beautiful face of Israel.
Your work would not have been done anywhere else in the world.
Health, happiness & success to you and yours.