Tracing Heirs

Genealogical Resources for Information on Owners and Heirs

Once a looted artwork is identified and the original pre-war owner is determined, the current heirs of such a property claim are not always known.

Listed below are databases and other resources that may be helpful in finding information about the original owners of looted art, Judaica, and other cultural property, as well as identifying their heirs. The basic information is presented.1

Introduction

The best place to begin an heir search is by determining if there are existing claims filed for the return of artwork previously belonging to the same owner. This may begin, for example, with checking information on artworks being sought by Lostart.de (free service) or by the Art Loss Register (commercial service). If no existing claim is found, archives containing files on claims submitted after the Holocaust should also be consulted. Such claims may have been filed in the country of origin, in Germany, or in the country where the heir resided at the time of the claim submission.

If heirs are not immediately found, a broader search may be necessary. An extensive pool of volunteers available on JewishGen.org and other sites may be tapped for advice, and the sites listed here may be useful for directing the researcher to resources for finding living relatives. If the path is not straightforward, it may be necessary to identify distant cousins from current generations, who may have information about current whereabouts of the heirs. This may be done by consulting existing family trees and seeking additional information on genealogy sites, as well as by posting inquiries that are circulated widely or seeking help from expert researchers. Sometimes the path may have to lead generations back before one can locate current generations.

While the first step is to find the descendants of the former owner or other relatives, being a relative does not necessarily confer the legal status as an heir. Therefore, if possible, inheritance proceedings and probate files should also be consulted. Such files may be found with the competent authorities where the deceased died, or where the last residence of the deceased was registered; it may be found at the place of residence of the heir, or at a location where the deceased owned real estate.

An additional issue to keep in mind is data protection. Archival information related to personal data is often not open to general research. Therefore, before planning archival research at an institution using a digital database that is not openly accessible, always inquire about research restrictions and be prepared to produce proof of a specific research project.

Postwar Art Claims

Suggested places to begin research:

The Berlin State archive (Landesarchiv Berlin) holds the post-war restitution claims filed at the Berlin Offices of Restitution (Wiedergutmachungsamt, or WGA) from 1949. This is the largest depository of post-war art restitution claims, because under the 1957 Federal Restitution Law, the offices reviewed all claims on property that was assumed to have entered the territory of Germany at one point. Since many of these claims were filed by the heirs of the victims, and during the proceedings the line of inheritance had to be established, this database provides invaluable information about the immediate post-war heirs of many art collectors.

In many countries, individuals and organizations that survived World War II filed claims for their plundered or lost cultural property. This occurred not only in Western Europe but also in the countries of Eastern Europe that became communist. Primarily due to data protection laws but sometimes also to political factors, the archival files of these claims have only recently and in isolated cases become accessible for research. At present they are not generally available over the internet, but can be seen onsite in the relevant archival repositories. For example, France Diplomatie: Diplomatic Archive Center of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs holds postwar art claims files that are now open for research (contact information may be found at the France Diplomatie website). However, there are a few exceptions, such as Austria's online Findbuch, which provides information on restitution and compensation files that are held at the Austrian State Archives and other cooperating archives. The National Archives of the Netherlands plans to scan and make accessible over the internet the Dutch postwar art claims, which will hopefully act as a precedent for making these types of files more easily accessible.

For an overview of other countries, the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure's (EHRI) online portal provides a listing of archives relevant to property claims. For information on the EHRI's portal, see EHRI.

Databases of Holocaust Victims and Survivors

The following are the main databases providing information on those who went through the Holocaust. Due to data privacy considerations, many of the names of survivors are available only on the onsite versions. These databases can be helpful with issues of alternative spellings of names and also to some extent with the identification of living relatives.

The International Tracing Service (ITS) archive contains millions of documents related to the fate of over 17 million people during World War II. Tracing individual fates of potential heirs is best done through direct enquiries submitted to the ITS in Bad Arolsen itself or through one of several digital repositories around the world: The Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide Studies for the UK; US Holocaust Memorial Museum for the US, Yad Vashem in Israel; The National Archives in France, National Archives of Belgium and the Institute of National Remembrance in Poland.

Selected Jewish and General Genealogy Sites

Online Family Trees

Networking and Data on Ancestry.com and JewishGen.org

  • Ancestry.com: The databases are of particular interest to provenance researchers, with information on Holocaust and newspaper databases, sections on Jewish records, and discussion groups.
  • JewishGen.org: The website provides a Family Finder, Memorial Books, Kehilalinks (web pages for towns).

Selected Jewish Archives in the United States

Selected Archives in Israel

Experts

A network of experts can be tapped by placing inquiries on JewishGen.org discussion groups. They can give advice on geographic regions, finding individuals throughout the world today, and how to search types of records. Researchers organize themselves by geographic location as well as by name, so to be sure to contact those who are experts in a city or region of interest.

Inquiries regarding experts to be consulted privately may also be directed to Karen S. Franklin, Director of Family Research at the Leo Baeck Institute, at KFranklin@lbi.cjh.org.

Genealogical Societies and Education Opportunities

IAJGS: International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. See web site for listings of member societies.

1The assistance of Karen S. Franklin, Director, Director of Family Research at the Leo Baeck Institute, and Dr. Rose Lerer Cohen in the preparation of this section is gratefully acknowledged.

Last update: January 18, 2018