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With Deals All Signed, Bush Team Continues Quieter Restitution Efforts

There are no more agreements to be forged, no last-minute deals to wrap up, but in a quiet fashion the Bush administration is continuing Holocaust restitution and education efforts.

At the end of last year, the Clinton White House’s point man on the issue, Stuart Eizenstat, was negotiating major settlements with the German and Austrian governments and charging that the incoming U.S. administration was not paying enough attention to restitution matters.

But as special envoy for Holocaust issues, Ambassador James D. Bindenagel says the initiatives Eizenstat began have come to fruition, and the State Department office now is focusing on implementing agreements and promoting Holocaust education and research projects in many European countries.

Bindenagel, 52, was a member of Eizenstat’s team that helped negotiate the $5.2 billion German settlement for former World War II slave and forced laborers.

While not the most senior official to deal with Holocaust restitution issues – – Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage is also involved in the effort – – Bindenagel is proud to be the full-time point person. He notes the emphasis the Bush administration has placed on Holocaust issues, as evidenced by his “open-ended” mandate.

The career diplomat is quick to say that restitution is just part of his office’s duties. While the insurance compensation plans and slave labor agreements grab the headlines, Bindenagel — like Eizenstat — places special importance on the education and research projects.

He also works on the 10-country task force on Holocaust education, promoting national memorial days and programming in schools and helping develop teacher training programs.

The issue of financial restitution remains a thorny one, partly because of the need to balance compensation for survivors and heirs with the need for countries to accept moral responsibility for their roles in the Holocaust.

These dual tasks compete for time and attention, but Bindenagel acknowledged that survivors have given their support to both aspects of the State Department’s work.

Getting money to survivors is important so they have a sense of justice, Bindenagel said, but getting countries to accept responsibility and ask for forgiveness is also important.

“We want memory to have the priority, not money,” he told JTA.

The insurance claims and art restitution command much of Bindenagel’s attention, as do survivors and their heirs and Jewish groups. Beside the German agreement, Austria agreed to establish a $310 million compensation fund for victims of the Holocaust and France has established a $350 million foundation and an uncapped claims fund. Other countries have set up restitution plans as well.

So far, at least one group gives fair marks to the Bush White House for its role in the process.

Though early in the scheme of things, the administration is “certainly engaged,” says Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference.

Bindenagel continues pushing the insurance claims process via the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, which is dealing with charges that European insurers refused payments on policies taken out by Jews who later perished in the Holocaust.

But ICHEIC has encountered a number of implementation difficulties, according to Taylor, and the Claims Conference will be looking to the United States for support and continued pressure on the German insurance companies.

A meeting in Washington Tuesday addressed some of those difficulties, and could be the first test of the Bush administration on the issue, Taylor said.

Much of Bindenagel’s job requires diplomatic skills, and he is aided by his extensive background in the region: He was deputy American ambassador in the former East Germany during German reunification, and later served as acting American ambassador to the unified country. Previously, he was State Department director for Central European affairs, responsible for relations with Austria, Switzerland and Germany.

Bindenagel said he is trying to create good will and that no agreement should leave the sense that Germany is being “let off the hook.”

“We need good faith and flexibility on both sides,” he said.

In the area of art restitution, Bindenagel is pushing European museums and collections to establish the provenance of various works and return them to their rightful owners. Museums around the world are researching thousands of works that could have been looted or handled by known Nazi dealers, and the State Department is supporting the efforts of a group run by Charles Bronfman and Ronald Lauder that is researching works of art in Russia.

Bindenagel believes that many European countries are rediscovering the issue – – but concedes that much work remains.

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