An automated email response awaits those trying to contact Project HEART, an ambitious Holocaust restitution program set up by Israel’s government to help survivors and their heirs regain properties seized by the Nazis.
“We are no longer responding to email inquiries, and until further notice, Project HEART’s call center will not be operational,” the message states.
The offices hosting the project in Milwaukee, in Israel and in Belgium, have been shut down abruptly, and the staffers operating the program were let go as of the end of April.
The program, which was publicly launched with great fanfare three years ago, has not been shut down completely, its leaders insist. It has instead, they say, been folded into an existing Israeli government ministry.
“‘Closing’ is a little of a strong word,” said Bobby Brown, who headed Project HEART until its funds were cut off. He explained that the Israeli government, which was responsible for 95% of the funds, has decided to “bring the program into the Ministry of Senior Citizens” with the end of the three-year contract for its operation.
Brown acknowledged, however, that the program was stripped of most of its funding and that its future is unclear.
Such nuances have been lost on some angry and frustrated survivors. By the hundreds of thousands, these survivors and their heirs responded to the project’s urgent invitations to fill out detailed forms about their lost properties from long ago. But the help they expected from the government of Israel and its partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel, in regaining those properties now looks highly unlikely to arrive.
“They created hope for the most vulnerable people,” said Jack Chivo, a survivor living Vancouver, British Columbia. Chivo’s family owned industrial factories in Bucharest, Romania, but was forced to sell them at a loss when Jews were no longer allowed to own property. Chivo had been among the first to file a claim with HEART, but he has seen no progress on his case.
“At a certain point, they stopped answering,” he recalled, “and then I got a message that the email and the phones were disconnected.” Chivo expressed his anger at what he views as the program’s failure to deliver. “People whose last hope was to get something back have been duped,” he argued passionately in a phone interview with the Forward.
Project HEART’s short-lived shot at returning Jewish property in Europe to its legal owners and their heirs highlighted the expectation gap between survivors’ hopes and the program’s actual mandate. Claimants such as Chivo saw Project HEART as a government-backed vehicle to retrieve their lost assets. But those defending its pullback say the program was designed with a less ambitious goal of documenting lost property and using it in future negotiations with European governments.
Survivors could be forgiven for having the impression they did. Many looked at promises such as the one given by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his video greeting on HEART’s website, in which he stated that the project “holds out the promise that we can finally achieve the justice so long denied to victims of the Holocaust and their heirs.” But while this was the project’s ultimate goal, there was no clear roadmap for achieving it after completing the initial stage of collecting information from survivors and families.