BERLIN (AP) — When Cati Holland checked her email a few weeks ago, she was surprised to find a message saying she was eligible for compensation for her grandmother's Berlin store that was seized by the Nazis more than 70 years ago.
It wasn't spam or a phishing attempt or even a legitimate note from a German official working to track down victims and their heirs. Rather, it was from an Israel-based social media genealogy company that is using the Internet to help match property stolen by the Nazis to heirs of the victims.
"My grandmother told me so many stories about the store — about the beautiful dresses and fancy hats they made, the wealthy customers who wore them," Holland, 75, told The Associated Press by phone from Hadera, Israel.
"But we always thought everything had been lost after my parents fled the Nazis. It never even occurred to us to claim any kind of restitution. I was completely surprised about that email."
Since the collapse of the Third Reich in 1945, Germany has paid around 70 billion euros ($92 billion) in compensation to the victims of the Holocaust. More than two million people have received lump sum payments or an ongoing monthly pension. The state of Israel has received around 1.7 billion euros ($2.2 billion), according to the German finance ministry.
Part of the compensation was earmarked for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, a private New York-based organization that works to secure restitution for survivors and their heirs. Descendants can come forward to claim their family's assets until the end of 2014 if they find their original property on a recently released list by the Claims Conference, called the Late Applicants Fund.
Over the years, the search for the heirs has become more complicated because most of the Holocaust survivors have died. Descendants also don't always have detailed knowledge of their family's former assets.
But the rise of social media has offered new opportunities to track heirs and close the books on one of the darkest chapters of German history.
"We are only just seeing the huge impact that social media will have on Holocaust history," said Robert-Jan Smits, the director-general of the European Union's commission for research and design. "We are moving from dusty archives to digitized databases."
One of the driving forces behind the new push has been Gilad Japhet, CEO and founder of Israel-based MyHeritage, a social media website with about 70 million registered users worldwide that lets individuals build their own family trees online.
A few months back, Japhet read a report about the Claims Conference's list of over 40,000 buildings, stores and factories that could not be matched with their original owners. Japhet matched some names on the list to the millions of names that users had posted on MyHeritage's family trees online.
"I thought my chances of finding any of the names on the website of MyHeritage were not looking good since experts have been searching for them for decades. But I still wanted to give it a chance," Japhet said. "I chose some very rare names from the list and to my surprise the second name I put in was already a match."
Japhet put together a team of five employees and had them write a computer program that automatically matches the names on the Claims Conference's list with those on the virtual family trees. So far, they have been able to match about 150 names on the list with names on the family trees. They expect to continue working on this project for several more months.
In the case of Cati Holland, MyHeritage initially contacted her son-in-law Eran Karoly. He had posted a family tree which included Recha Cohn, Holland's grandmother and the owner of the Berlin store, which was located on the fashionable Kurfuerstendamm boulevard in the western part of the city. Holland's grandparents escaped to South America shortly after the Nazis took over in the early 1930s and ended up in Israel many years later.
Holland filed an application for restitution to the Claims Conference and is now waiting for a response. The level of compensation depends on various factors, such as the value of the property and how many people will apply until 2014.
"I filled out the forms and sent in birth certificates and several photos," Holland said.
The Claims Conference itself says it has "received hundreds of applications" for the Late Applicants Fund but can't say for sure how many of them were due to MyHeritage.
Applicants who qualify for restitution will have to wait until the program's deadline on December 31, 2014, the Claims Conference's chairman Reuven Merhav wrote in an email.
As for Japhet and his team, they have made clear to the claimants that they don't want any money in return for their efforts.
"In my emails to the users, I always write that we don't want any money for doing this, nor part of any restitution they will get," said Japhet. "We do this as a mitzvah — which in Judaism is a good deed."
AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft contributed reporting from New York.
Claims Conference's list of names:
- Claims Conference