BERLIN - 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 $92 billion in compensation to the victims of the Holocaust. More than 2 million people have received lump-sum payments or an ongoing monthly pension. The state of Israel has received around $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 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.
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.
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 more than 40,000 buildings, stores and factories that could not be matched with their original owners.
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.