Elan Steinberg: ‘Never Taken For A Fool’


Elan Steinberg was remembered this week as the master wordsmith of the World Jewish Congress whose ability to craft pithy sound bites and cogently argue on behalf of Holocaust survivors helped the organization win billions in settlements from Swiss banks and Germany, as well as expose the Nazi past of former United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim.

Mr. Steinberg died Friday morning of complications while battling lymphatic cancer, according to his wife, Sharon. He was 59. 

“He was a new breed of fighter,” said Eli Rosenbaum, director of strategy and policy in the Human Rights and Special Prosecution Section of the U.S. Justice Department. “He was a master political, geopolitical, organizational and media strategist. 

“There were two causes that grabbed his heart — seeking justice in behalf of the victims of the Holocaust and ensuring that other Jews would never be added to the list of murdered Jews.”

In recent years, Mr. Steinberg was a consultant to Ronald Lauder, president of the WJC, who said in a statement that without Steinberg’s skills and determination the WJC’s successes “in all probability could not have been achieved.”

It was as the WJC’s executive director from 1978 until 2004 that Mr. Steinberg demonstrated his prowess as a skilled negotiator and tactician.

“He created the strategy [for the WJC],” said Neal Sher, a longtime friend and former director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations and its chief Nazi prosecutor. “He had an ability — almost like a master chess player — to see the whole picture and where each action would lead.”

More than once, Sher said, Mr. Steinberg spoke to him about the WJC’s efforts to get Swiss banks to acknowledge the millions they held in dormant accounts whose Jewish owners were killed in the Holocaust.

“He would say, ‘I’m engaged in battle. I might win and I might lose, but I will never be taken for a fool.’”

Thus when during a negotiating session about the recovery of looted art the French cultural minister dismissively said that Mr. Steinberg knew nothing about art, he replied: “I don’t know anything about art, but I’m from Brooklyn and I know about stolen goods.”

A son of Holocaust survivors who was born in Rishon LeZion in Israel, Mr. Steinberg grew up in Brooklyn and “never forgot his roots,” Mrs. Steinberg said. 

“He never got a huge salary and was very modest,” she said. “He was not interested in blowing his own horn and he was never interested in getting his name in the paper — it was the issue that was important to him. … He never went into a meeting with an official without having an issue that he wanted to bring up.”

Mrs. Steinberg, who met her husband when she was hired as a receptionist at the WJC and became his assistant before they married in 1988, said Mr. Steinberg “understood the power of the press and speech.

“You won’t find many mistakes in his quotes,” she said. “They were profound, to the point and made sense.”

She recalled seeing other executives at the WJC watch her husband conduct press conferences “to learn how to do it.”

Menachem Rosensaft, the WJC’s general counsel, said he considered Mr. Steinberg “the consummate professional who did his utmost in terms of furthering the goals he deemed important.”

“When it came to Holocaust remembrance and fighting for survivors and their rights, he was unwavering,” said Rosensaft, who served with Mr. Steinberg as unpaid vice presidents of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.

Another friend, Rabbi Marc Schneier, said Mr. Steinberg “reminded us that casual Jews become Jewish casualties — and he lived by that motto.”

Rabbi Schneier said Mr. Steinberg had initially been hired by the WJC to be a consultant to its American section, but his talents were quickly realized and he soon became the organization’s top executive.

“He was the one who really made that organization what it became,” Rabbi Schneier said. “He understood the importance of having an issue that would galvanize the world. He single-handedly changed the Jewish world. Show me anyone today who has made that kind of a contribution.”

But Mr. Steinberg often said he cherished most his three children, Max, Harry and Lena. He was proud that he tutored each of them for their college SATs, and that Lena scored a perfect 800 on the verbal exam.

Rosenbaum, who in the 1980s was an intern in Mr. Steinberg’s office, recalled one incident in which Mr. Steinberg used the clout the WJC had achieved from the Waldheim incident to quietly squelch anti-Semitic unrest in Paraguay.

“We got a frantic cable from the Jewish leadership in Paraguay saying there had been anti-Semitic posters and invectives against Jews there,” he said.

Knowing that such incidents could not have been carried out without the approval of Paraguay’s president and dictator, Alfredo Stroessner, Mr. Steinberg “crafted a letter to Stroessner — he knew the diplomatic language to use — and in short order Stroessner wrote back … and the graffiti was taken down and there were no more threats, Rosenbaum said. “Stroessner feared that the WJC” would do to him what it did to Waldheim.

After digging up evidence that Waldheim, who was then president of Austria, had lied about much of his Nazi past, Mr. Steinberg convinced the U.S. to bar Waldheim’s entry into this country — the first formal entrance exclusion of a sitting head of state.

In a tribute by Elie Wiesel that was read at Mr. Steinberg’s funeral, Wiesel said: “Whenever Jews were in danger or Jewish honor offended, he vigorously yet elegantly spoke up. Whenever Jewish memory was attacked, he attacked the attacker. His passion for our people, his resolve to confront its enemies with honor and dignity … will not soon be forgotten.”