Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat: European Union Should Engage More Fully In Holocaust Restitution And Commemoration
Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, who has played a key role in virtually every aspect of Holocaust restitution and compensation for over four decades through various positions he has held in US governments since the Carter administration, called on the countries of the European Union to play a more pro-active role in advancing all aspects of Holocaust restitution, compensation and commemoration in eastern Europe.
In a Zoom conversation arranged earlier this week by Limmud FSU International, an organization that mounts peer-led gatherings of Jewish learning that specifically reach out to Russian-speaking Jews around the world, Eizenstat gave a comprehensive overview of achievements in Holocaust restitution since the end of the war, but stressed what still needs to be done. He particularly focused on EU states, that, he argued, should advance the issue as a central condition for membership by eastern European countries; "they should be making the case as a fundamental element of their founding principles."
The session, that was hosted by chair of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee, Matthew Bronfman, is part of a series of e-learning opportunities on Jewish, general – and coronavirus – topics that are being regularly held as part of Limmud FSU's online activities which seek to provide learning and community engagement opportunities during the global lockdown. It was initiated by Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler and produced by Limmud FSU Public Affairs director Natasha Chechik. The session was moderated by Deborah Lipson.
"We at Limmud FSU are committed to including Holocaust education in all our learning festivals," noted Bronfman, while during his talk Eizenstat stressed the special responsibility to ensure fair compensation for Holocaust survivors in central and eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union (FSU), who were the "double victims," of both Nazism and communism, and remain today the most vulnerable and needy survivors. "Over 90 percent of survivors in the FSU live in poverty," he noted.
Eizenstat recalled that his engagement with the topic of Holocaust restitution was the result of a commitment he made to himself as a young 25-year old working on the presidential campaign of Hubert Humphrey in 1968. He met a fellow campaign aide, "more than twice my age at the time," Arthur Morse, who had just published While Six Million Died, which for the first time laid out what the Roosevelt administration knew about the genocide of the Jews of Europe while failing to act. "I was shocked; FRD was an icon to US Jews," said Eizenstat, "and I promised myself that if I were ever in a senior position in government, I would do what I could to rectify the dark cloud over the US role during the Holocaust."
The first opportunity to do just this came when Eizenstat was working under the Carter administration, when he drafted a recommendation to establish a presidential commission, chaired by prominent Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, on the Holocaust. That led to the creation of the Washington DC United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "It has to date been visited by nearly 50 million people, three-quarters of whom are non-Jews."
Yet the real breakthrough, and the start of his efforts to do something "for Holocaust survivors and restitution" came as the result of what Eizenstat called "a historic meeting," between the late Edgar Bronfman, then president of the World Jewish Congress – and father of Matthew Bronfman – and President Clinton. The Cold War had recently ended, and Bronfman urged the president to appoint someone to lead the effort to restore communal property to surviving but tiny communities in eastern Europe.
At the time, Eizenstat was US ambassador to the European Union, and, he recalled, all his staff recommended he not accept the new position, reminding him that his role as ambassador was a full-time job. Since then, he has played a key role in recovering $17 billion of Jewish assets that were stolen by Nazi Germany, for, he reminded the audience, the Holocaust was not only the "most ghastly genocide in human history, it was also the greatest theft in human history."
The figures that lie behind the various agreements and the ongoing compensation programs funded by the German government and others that Eizenstat negotiated are staggering. To note just a few: $1.25 billion from Swiss banks, where 21,000 accounts that had definitely been opened by Jews in Europe, and a further 54,000 accounts that may have been opened by them, were identified – after the banks insisted that they had no savings of Holocaust victims or survivors. In this, Eizenstat stressed, Edgar Bronfman's role was "absolutely seminal." This achievement was quickly followed by a $5 billion agreement with the German government and 6,000 private German companies that had used slave and forced labor, following a series of class action suits, and which for the first time provided compensation to Jewish and non-Jewish former slave and forced laborers. One of the last agreements signed realized $60 million from the French government in compensation for French Jews who were deported to camps outside France by SNCF the French railway company.
No less, Eizenstat continues to lead negotiations by the Claims Conference with the German government that have resulted in compensation precisely for those double victims who were denied any measure of justice during the Cold War. Yet the agreement that is closest to his heart, he said, is the one that provides homecare to those who suffered persecution under Nazi Germany and who today live across the globe. After difficult and lengthy negotiations, each of these agreements, and their extensions and modifications, must be approved by the German Bundestag, for the sums – $9 billion since 2009 – "all come from German taxpayer money." The negotiations, he noted, are often conducted with young German officials "who were not even born at the time of the Holocaust," but they have all been approved by the German parliament unanimously. "They recognize their responsibility."
Eizenstat's involvement has led to a series of declarations, agreements and guidelines on the restitution of every aspect of the assets looted by the Nazis and, no less, to the establishment of international organizations committed to Holocaust education. Indeed, he stressed, he is determined that the final word on the Holocaust not be compensation, but education. He noted with concern that only 12 US states have legislation requiring that the topic be taught – and that even in those states, educators do not have the tools or training to teach the topic in an effective manner. And this needs to be seen against the background of not only the growth in both antisemitism and Holocaust denial, but also of the alarming findings of a survey the Claims Conference conducted in 2018, among them that over 40 percent of US millennials could not identify Auschwitz and 20 percent said they had never heard of the Holocaust.
And what still remains to be done?
Eizenstat praised the Polish government for giving pensions to Holocaust survivors from Poland wherever they live that are equal to the Polish state pensions, but was deeply critical of the lack of progress in compensating the descendants of Polish Jewish Holocaust victims and survivors for the real estate their families once owned. "Across eastern Europe the restitution record is spotty." But he was also critical of western Europe, arguing that the European Union should push on these issues, and not leave it all to the US government.
And where Holocaust education is concerned, while Jewish communal property in Eastern Germany and unclaimed personal Jewish property was the source, over the past 20 years, of the considerable sums of money the Claims Conference has invested in Holocaust education, it should be the German government that now ensures that these efforts can continue, he declared. The principle has been agreed with the German government, and the details will form part of the next round of negotiations the Claims Conference holds with Germany. "We should be meeting this month; but the talks had to be delayed because of the corona pandemic. Germany has done a good job with Holocaust education within its borders, but must now assume responsibility for Holocaust education worldwide."
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