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Behind the Headlines: Son of German Jews, Holbrooke Points to Wife As His ‘jewish Story’

June 24, 1998
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Richard Holbrooke only spent a year as the U.S. ambassador to Germany, but he tried to make sure that his hosts would not forget this son of German Jews.

Visitors to Holbrooke’s official residence were greeted by an ambassador who proudly displayed a photo of his grandfather, a Jewish businessman, in his World War I Germany army uniform.

“I show it to German visitors as a symbol of what they lost,” Holbrooke told The New York Times in a 1994 interview.

Four years, three jobs and a marriage later, Holbrooke is Clinton’s nominee to serve as the American ambassador to the United Nations.

Raised in the United States after his parents and grandfather fled Germany in the 1930s, Holbrooke is slated to join Clinton’s inner circle. Many are speculating that this posting is his tryout for the top diplomatic job, as secretary of state, if Vice President Al Gore wins the 2000 presidential election.

If confirmed by the Senate, Holbrooke, 57, would replace Bill Richardson, whom Clinton tapped to become his secretary of energy.

Although Holbrooke remains a relative unknown when it comes to Middle East issues, he will not be setting policy at the United Nations. Much of his direction will come from the State Department.

The United Nations has remained relatively quiet the last couple of years on the peace process front, but the Palestinians are beginning to once again use the world body to try to pressure Israel to make concessions in the peace process.

This week, the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in New York was working to force a General Assembly vote to change its status from observer to nearly that of a state. The United States is working to avert such a move.

At other U.N. bodies, the PLO is trying to convene the signatories to the human rights convention to sanction Israel for its treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and eastern Jerusalem.

A 36-year veteran of the foreign service, Holbrooke has become best known for his chief role in negotiating the end to the Bosnian war. He would become the most seasoned diplomat to represent the United States at the United Nations since the Persian Gulf War.

After losing the nomination for secretary of state to Madeleine Albright at the beginning of Clinton’s second term, Holbrooke returned to work on Wall Street, where he had worked in between the Carter and Clinton administrations. He has continued to work as a special envoy for Cyprus, and from time to time on Bosnia.

Holbrooke is currently vice chairman at Credit Suisse First Boston, an affiliate of one of the Swiss banks facing a class-action lawsuit to settle Holocaust-era claims.

Holbrooke, who will leave that post to move to the United Nations, early on urged Switzerland to return assets to Holocaust victims.

President Carter made Holbrooke the youngest person ever to hold the rank of assistant secretary of state, naming him to run East Asian and Pacific affairs. Holbrooke returned to that same rank under Clinton as assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs.

Clinton cited these experiences as well as his work as one of the chief architects of the 1995 Dayton accords that ended the war in Bosnia when he nominated Holbrooke last week.

Like most nominees facing Senate confirmation hearings, Holbrooke is not granting interviews.

Widely praised in the Jewish community for his role in ending the Bosnian war, he received awards for his efforts from the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress.

According to friends, Holbrooke’s Jewishness has not played a role in either his career or private life.

In newspaper interviews, he has pointed to his third wife, Kati Marton, as the interesting “Jewish story.”

While working on a book about Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat stationed in Budapest who saved Jews during the war, Marton traveled to her native Hungary from where her parents had fled during the 1950s Communist takeover. It was there that an old friend of her mother’s told her that Wallenberg had came too late for Marton’s grandparents.

It was the first time that she had heard about her Jewish roots.

Like Madeleine Albright’s parents, Marton’s family hid their Jewish identity when they came to the United States.

When Albright found out about her own Jewish family history last year, she is said to have turned to Marton for advice and support.

Although Holbrooke has not written extensively on the Middle East, in his latest book, “To End a War,” he wrote about the impact the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which came during the Dayton peace talks, had on the parties to those talks.

Rabin “had been murdered because he had been willing to consider a compromise for peace. The reaction of the Balkan presidents was cold-blooded and self- centered; this showed, each said separately, what personal risks they were taking for peace,” Holbrooke wrote.

“None expressed sorrow for Rabin or the Israeli people or concern for the peace process. The only Bosnian who seemed stricken was the ambassador to the United States, Sven Alkalaj, who was from an ancient and distinguished Sephardic Jewish family from Sarajevo.”

Alkalaj left Ohio immediately to represent Bosnia at Rabin’s funeral, Holbrooke wrote.

Praising Rabin, Holbrooke wrote, “The contrast between Rabin and the Balkan leaders could not have been more evident than it was in the following days as we watched the funeral on television and simultaneously struggled to find a way forward in the Balkans.”

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