"Today is the opening shot of the struggle for justice and righting the wrongs done to those who perished and those who survived the Holocaust, in order to return it (the money) to heirs and Holocaust survivors in need," Yaron Shamir, CEO of the Center of Organizations for Holocaust Survivors in Israel, told Ynet.
"In reality, Bank Leumi is holding quite a large sum, estimated at around NIS 300 million (about $76.2 million.) The bank is refusing to return this money and is dragging its feet by employing delay tactics. If the bank expects a biological solution, that is, seeing Holocaust survivors die so it can return less money, if any at all, this won't happen," Shamir said.
Knesset Member Zeev Bielski was among those at the demonstration. "Every child today has a family picture album, a family tree. I don't. It was never spoken about at home," he said emotionally, recounting his family's story.
"It is a stain on all of our lives," added MK Bielski. "I am here as a member of Knesset, and demand that the banks in Israel immediately clear this disgrace from the agenda. Unfortunately, 35 Holocaust survivors pass away every day."
Bielski noted that the Knesset's Finance Committee is slated to discuss the issue next week.
Holocaust survivors protest (Photo: Dudu Azulay)
Mordechai Hareli, a survivor of the Teresinstadt concentration camp, was party to the discussions held in Prague last week on returning survivor funds from European institutions. "We are fighting against banks and institutions outside of Israel for recognition of what we deserve. We never had imagined that we would encounter such stubborn resistance here in Israel. There is a double injustice being done here. We are forced to carry out our struggle here while, at the same time, we are waging parallel struggles abroad. Abroad they say to us: 'What do you want from us? Look at what is happening in Israel.'"
Avraham Roet, one of the founders of the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims Assets who now serves as the company's Chairman of the Board said: "The feeling is horrible. The fact that the bank is afraid and doesn't send even one representative out is unbelievable. Just to come and say to the crowd, 'I'll do something. I will explain.' After all, these are their customers. We will demand that all key figures take their accounts elsewhere. We don't have a lot of time."
Bank Leumi said in response that the spontaneous demonstration was organized by a company specializing in public relations stunts.
"The organization of a 'spontaneous demonstration' of Holocaust survivors at the behest of public relations professionals is nothing but a manipulative and shameful exploitation of a national symbol held dear to all of us.
"The Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims Assets operates in a peculiar manner, almost bordering on outrageous, necessitating the urgent intervention of state authorities and the state comptroller. The company attempts to cover up grave shortcomings in its operations, including the fact that it is needlessly holding NIS 20 million (about $5 million) transferred to its coffers from Bank Leumi, and does not do a thing with it, save for pay hundreds of thousands of a shekels for public relations stunts. It is saddening and puzzling that a government company behaves in such manner. However, since the facts do not support their baseless claims, it seems this is the only option left open to them."