WASHINGTON, Jan. 3 (JTA) – With the Clinton administration fast drawing to a close, Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat appears to be less concerned about his future than about the Holocaust restitution efforts he has directed for the last five years.
The administration’s point man in the restitution battles, Eizenstat is concerned that the issue has not been a priority for the Bush transition team.
“It’s not an issue that, so far as I know, is on the radar screen of the incoming administration,” Eizenstat told JTA in an interview.
As President Clinton’s special envoy on Holocaust issues, Eizenstat has overseen dramatic changes in the area of World War II-era restitution, from negotiating major settlements worth some $7 billion with the Swiss banks and German and Austrian governments to helping set up a 10-country task force on Holocaust education to promote national memorial days and programming in schools.
The efforts made by the U.S. government have been bipartisan and nonpolitical, Eizenstat said, and it is important that countries think the new U.S. leadership will continue to make the issue a priority. On the contrary, he said, the Bush team should build on the momentum of the last few years and have a point person who will get the attention of foreign governments.
“There’s no reason the next administration shouldn’t grab it and give as much emphasis to it as we have,” Eizenstat said, the trace of a Southern accent from his Atlanta boyhood still evident in his slow, measured speech.
Eizenstat’s record on restitution makes those involved in the issue all the more concerned about his imminent departure.
Under Eizenstat’s leadership, a number of political negotiations got under way and ultimately bore fruit. Preparations now are being made to disburse money from a fund established by Swiss banks that misappropriated Jewish assets during the Holocaust, as well as from a settlement with Germany that covers slave labor and “Aryanized” property, and which earmarks $350 million for Holocaust education projects.
Interestingly, Eizenstat is proudest of some of the less-publicized successes of the restitution efforts, such as the fact that 17 countries have established historical commissions to examine their roles in handling Holocaust-era assets.
These commissions are important, Eizenstat explained, because at some point the settlement moneys are going to evaporate, but Holocaust education must continue.
“The real question is what memory will be left,” he said. “I think it’s important that the last memory of the Holocaust not be money, but memory and lessons learned.”
For Eizenstat, 57, his most important accomplishment is having “brought back the unfinished business of World War II and the Holocaust to the public’s eye, of doing some measure of justice to the elderly survivors, and creating a greater sense of memory for those who perished.”
He hopes that restitution efforts have put “a nail in the coffin of historical revisionism.” He also hopes they have helped people understand the “horrific dimensions not only of the loss of life but the incredible effort to destroy the entire culture,” and how the Nazis viewed property confiscation as a way to finance their war effort.
“It adds a whole new dimension to what we already knew,” he said.
As the restitution process gained speed, questions arose about Jews and other Holocaust victims pursuing money and spurring a Holocaust “industry.” Eizenstat said he considers such criticism misplaced.
People have a right to recover their property and assets, he said. Furthermore, lawyers are not getting rich off the settlements, while in fact it was their class-action lawsuits that grabbed the attention of governments and companies.
Eizenstat criticized some lawyers’ threats of boycotts and sanctions against countries that refused to negotiate with Jewish groups, and said he feels that lawyers sometimes use Holocaust victims as props at their settlement news conferences.
Even before he took over the restitution issue, Eizenstat was respected by Jewish leaders for his work on other issues of concern to the community. As domestic policy adviser to President Carter, Eizenstat worked on the American response to the Arab economic boycott of Israel and on Soviet refugee policy, among other issues.
Between Democratic administrations, Eizenstat worked as a lawyer.
From 1993 to 1996, he was U.S. ambassador to the European Union in Brussels, and from 1997 to 1999 served as the State Department’s senior economic official, advising Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on international economic policy. Jewish groups also appreciate his leadership on human rights and terrorism issues.
A Conservative Jew, Eizenstat decorates the anteroom to his office with colorful Andy Warhol prints of famous Jewish personalities such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, actress Sarah Bernhardt, the Marx Brothers, Albert Einstein and Golda Meir. Inside his cluttered office, the atmosphere is quieter and more sedate.
Thin and balding, with a studious expression and a serious tone, Eizenstat sketches out the state of restitution efforts on different fronts and in different countries.
In the United States, the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets is set to deliver a report soon that will assess restitution efforts thus far and recommend funding for Holocaust education projects.
Some countries already have set up funds to make reparations. France, for example, set up a $350 million foundation and an uncapped claims fund to pay the fair-market value of properties confiscated by the wartime Vichy regime, an unusual move that Eizenstat said was “very welcome.”
Museums around the world are researching thousands of artworks that could have been looted or handled by known Nazi dealers. A number of pieces are being returned to their owners or their heirs, and Eizenstat noted Russia’s recent decision to open its archives and permit claims from families and religious institutions whose art was confiscated.
Eizenstat also has pushed 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.
The first big step came last month when Italian insurer Assicurazioni Generali agreed to pay $100 million to settle Holocaust-era insurance claims and provide humanitarian assistance to survivors.
State insurance commissioners, who wanted to launch their own restitution efforts, criticized Eizenstat’s insistence that all insurance issues be channeled through ICHEIC.
Some negotiations, particularly the German settlement, were very emotional and difficult, Eizenstat admitted.
Eizenstat plans to work on these issues to the very last days of his term, as negotiations are still under way with Austria on a broad range of Holocaust-era issues. Austria already has agreed to pay approximately $395 million to roughly 150,000 former slave and forced laborers and at least $300 million for property restitution, but the total funding isn’t finalized. Eizenstat plans to visit Vienna in January to tie up as many loose ends as possible.
Eizenstat first showed his interest in Holocaust issues in 1978 when, under Carter, he helped lay the groundwork for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Twenty-three later – and after five years as special envoy for property claims in Central and Eastern Europe – Eizenstat said it gives him a “sense of satisfaction” that he helped bring justice to survivors and helped people understand the dimensions of the Nazis’ property confiscation.
Eizenstat credited the Claims Conference and the World Jewish Congress with helping to get Holocaust restitution efforts under way.
Though he is unsure whether he will move on to a law or consulting firm, Eizenstat doesn’t want to leave the restitution field entirely. After stepping down, he plans to spend several months at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars writing a book on Holocaust restitution issues.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.