Checks worth half a billion dollars found at Western Wall

A worshipper at the Western Wall found an envelope with 507 open checks worth about half a billion dollars.

The checks, most worth $1 million and originating from countries around the world, were signed but not made out to anybody. The majority of the checks came from Nigeria, according to the Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz.

The worshipper, through an attorney, turned the checks over to the Jerusalem police.

Similar checks have been found in the past in the Western Wall charity boxes, and have all bounced, Rabinowitz said in a statement.

Rabinowitz and the Jerusalem police praised the worshipper who found the checks for being so honest.

Holocaust Deja Vu

There was a time when Dora Apsan Sorell could have really used the $3,043 she received from the German government last summer. The check was meant to compensate Sorell for her slave labor during the Holocaust.

But the 83-year-old Auschwitz survivor and retired doctor who lives in Berkeley gave the money away as soon as it arrived. She donated it to the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which is among a handful of Jewish organizations trying to aid desperate refugees from the Darfur region of western Sudan.

Sorell, who learned about the crisis in Sudan from a television program, said the situation looks a lot like what happened to her and her family under Hitler. Now she is hoping that her gesture will help raise awareness among other Jews and motivate them to respond as well.

Since February, villagers in Darfur region have been murdered, raped and driven from their homes by a brutal band of government-backed, ethnically-Arab militias known as Janjaweed. Humanitarian groups and the U.S. government agree the government of Sudan is encouraging the ethnically motivated genocide campaign, but the world community has, as yet, done little to stop it.

Humanitarian and human rights groups have been sounding dire warnings about the genocide in Darfur since the situation escalated in February. And a growing number of Jewish groups and individuals have taken up the cause in recent months as well.

In looking at Darfur, Sorell has every reason to believe in the human capacity for evil. She lost her parents, two brothers and more than 40 relatives at Auschwitz. But this time, she believes, the world is supposed to know better.

“That a bunch of criminals can do this in the 21st century. That you can rape girls of 6 years old and kill their families and burn down their houses; it’s just unbelievable that the world can let this happen,” she said.

Sorell was born in the northern Transylvania town of Sighet. She was transported to Auschwitz with her parents, Herman and Zissel Apsan, and her brothers, Moishi and Yancu, in May 1944. Sorell last saw her mother when an SS guard drove them apart with a blow to Sorell’s arm. She believes the rest of her family was killed upon arrival.

Sorell survived at Birkenau, the concentration camp adjacent to Auschwitz, until December 1944. Then she was transferred to a forced-labor camp in Germany, where she worked in a munitions factory until the end of the war.

In the decades when Sorell and her family were struggling to start again, she said the reparations money would have been helpful. But even without it, Sorell built a life she is proud of.

“I don’t want to be a victim,” Sorell said of the reparations she gave away. “I’ve made it, after all.”

After the war, she was reunited with her high school sweetheart, Tzali Sorell. A member of the resistance, Tzali Sorell had been jailed before the Jews from Sighet were deported to the camps. He believes he survived because he was literally forgotten in prison. The two have been married for 59 years.

Trapped in communist Romania after the war, Sorell put herself through medical school and raised three children. She and her family were finally allowed to leave Romania in 1961, and after time in Europe and Brazil, they immigrated to New York in 1964.

She eventually became a tenured professor of rehabilitative medicine at New York Medical College. After they retired, the Sorells moved to Northern California to be closer to their grandchildren.

In 1982, when her first grandchild, Miriam, was born, Sorell began writing about her experiences in a series of letters. They now comprise the chapters of “Tell the Children, Letters to Miriam,” a memoir Sorell self-published in 1998.

For Sorell and her family, the past is as indelible as the number that was hastily tattooed on her left forearm by an SS guard at Auschwitz: A-7603. Even her 2-year-old grandson is aware of it. He shows Sorell that he is learning the alphabet by pointing to the “A” on his grandmother’s arm.

But Sorell knows that her past “is not just mine to keep,” she wrote in her memoir. “Being a survivor is a burden, and for me, it carries the responsibility to share it with others, to impart that experience to young people and acquaint them with the dangers of hatred and intolerance.”

Sorell estimated that she has spoken about the Holocaust to as many as 10,000 students in classrooms and summer camps, at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and even at a prison program for men convicted of domestic violence.

Now she hopes that she can encourage others to speak out and give money to help the victims of Darfur.

More information about Dora Sorell is available on her Web site,

Jewish and multifaith organizations working to help the victims of Darfur include: The American Jewish World Service, Emergency Sudan Appeal,; Jewish Coalition for Sudan Relief, part of the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief,; and Save Darfur Coaliton,

Fund for Survivors

A foundation to aid needy Holocaust survivors in California, funded through a $4.2-million check from three Dutch insurance companies, was formally established last week by state officials, Jewish organizations and survivors.

The California Humanitarian Foundation for Holocaust Survivors is believed to be the first of its kind funded by European insurers, who have generally dragged their feet in meeting their obligations to Jews who took out policies between the two world wars.

In presenting the check, representing contributions by Aegon USA, ING America Insurance Holdings and Fortis, Inc., California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said he hoped the action by the three Dutch affiliates "will unleash efforts all over the world by insurance companies to overcome interminable delays."

He urged other European insurance carriers to step forward in meeting their obligations to Jewish and other victims of the Holocaust "as a matter of conscience."

Arthur Stern described establishment of the new foundation, which he chairs, as "a significant milestone for all survivors." Stern, like eight of the foundation’s 12 board members, is himself a Holocaust survivor.

He estimated that 1,000 to 2,000 out of 22,000 survivors in California are indigent and should receive payments "equitably, speedily" and with a minimum of red tape. The primary California survivor communities are in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego.

Though appreciative of the Dutch gesture, survivor Jona Goldrich, who serves as Gov. Gray Davis’ liaison for Holocaust issues, commented that the $4.2 million represented "just a token of the money owed." He estimated that European insurers owe as much as $1 billion to survivors and their heirs.

The action by the Dutch companies is a humanitarian gesture and does not affect any insurance claims against them. Lockyer praised the three as "the best corporate citizens" among European insurers, in contrast to insurance giants Allianz of Germany and Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, which owe hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to their former policyholders, he said.

Initial announcement of the companies’ $4.2-million offer was made as long ago as November 1999 by then-state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush. However, he failed to collect the money, and some months afterward he became embroiled in corruption charges and eventually resigned.

Quackenbush’s interim successor, Harry Low, said he hoped to have all the money distributed to needy survivors by 2002, and Stern said he expected to send out the first checks this year by Labor Day.

The Jewish Community Foundation in Los Angeles will administer and distribute the funds without cost so that all the money will go directly to survivors in need.

Among those applauding the new humanitarian fund was survivor Fred Diament, 77, who lost his parents and three brothers in the Final Solution.

"After all the suffering, and now in the last years of their lives, [survivors] should live in a garage? That’s unacceptable and intolerable," he said.

Richard Mahan, the foundation’s executive director, advised those wishing further information to phone (888) 890-9911.

Staff Writer Michael Aushenker contributed to this article.