By DONNA URSCHEL
Stuart E. Eizenstat, author of "Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II," told an audience at the Library of Congress recently how the United States negotiated with European governments to obtain $8 billion in settlements for victims of the Second World War.
"This is really an improbable story of how, 50 years after the end of World War II, justice, belatedly, came to long-suffering victims, Jewish and non-Jewish," Eizenstat said. His June 24 presentation was part of the Center for the Book's Books & Beyond series of talks that highlights books with a special connection to the Library. The Library's European Division co-sponsored the lecture.
In introductory remarks, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington described Eizenstat as a quiet and effective international statesman and a "marvelous American." He said the Library was honored and privileged to have his personal papers in the Manuscript Division.
Eizenstat is a main participant in his story. He served in a number of senior positions in the Clinton administration, including undersecretary of state, while simultaneously leading the effort to obtain reparations for World War II victims.
"Imperfect Justice" is his personal account of the political and diplomatic maneuverings with Switzerland, Germany, France and Austria to resolve the issues of dormant bank accounts, slave labor, confiscated property, looted art and unpaid insurance policies.
"It's the story of political intrigue and diplomacy at the highest levels, with a cast of characters that would fit in well with a Shakespearean play," Eizenstat said.
In January 1995, while serving as U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Eizenstat received a call from Richard C. Holbrooke, assistant secretary of state, asking him to encourage the new democracies of Eastern Europe to return the communal properties that had been owned by religious communities. The properties—churches, synagogues, schools, community centers and even cemeteries—had been confiscated by the Germans during World War II, then nationalized by the Communists.
Eizenstat accepted the challenge. He grew up in a Jewish family in Atlanta, Ga., but only became aware of the unresolved issues of the Holocaust as a young man working in politics during the late 1960s. He then vowed to do whatever he could to help Holocaust victims. While he was working for the Carter administration in the 1980s, Eizenstat recommended to the president the creation of a commission, headed by Elie Wiesel, to study the construction of a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Eizenstat said the timing was right in the 1990s to work on the communal property issue. With the end of the Cold War, many countries opened their borders and people could travel and reconnect to what was stolen. Also, governments opened their archives, and historians began to plumb the unfinished business of World War II.
Upon the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, many newspapers were running stories about war-related issues. Eizenstat read a dramatic front-page article in the June 21, 1995, issue of the Wall Street Journal by Peter Gumbel about dormant Swiss bank accounts. Eizenstat said no one had known about these dormant accounts, opened mostly by Jews wanting to shield their assets from Hitler's clutches. The assets were never returned to family members.
Eizenstat said the U.S. government also gave him permission to work on seeking restitution for these accounts. Class-action lawsuits all over the United States were filed against the Swiss banks.
"One discovery led to another. One set of lawsuits, to another. One negotiation, to another, until six years later, we look back on a wildly implausible set of results," Eizenstat said.
"Thousands of communal properties are being returned, even as we speak. In Poland, 5,000 pieces of Jewish property were returned, ironically, to a population of 5,000," he said.
More than 20,000 Swiss bank accounts were located out of a possible 54,000 that existed, Eizenstat said.
"It's the first time in recorded history that private corporations were held accountable for their actions during wartime," Eizenstat explained, referring to the compensation for slave and forced labor. He also said insurance companies are paying policies at 10 times the face value, taking into account the passage of time.
Eizenstat said the Germans during World War II stole approximately 600,000 paintings. He negotiated with 40 countries to return, or account for, all but 100,000 paintings. Museums and galleries today are still checking their inventories, and each week art is being returned to its rightful owner.
Eizenstat explained how each country reacted differently to the negotiations. Switzerland fought the disclosures and resented the pressure. Germany was cooperative, understanding it must once again pay for its wartime sins. Austria complained that it, too, was a victim of Hitler, but eventually faced its past and reached a $1 billion settlement. France, for the first time, accepted responsibility for the Vichy regime.
"Was it worth six years of effort?" Eizenstat asked rhetorically.
"It was worth it for the victims, not because any of them became wealthy," he said. "The slave laborer received $7,500, and forced laborers $2,500. Hardly a king's ransom. Yet victims and survivors tell me repeatedly that it wasn't the amount of the check—it was the fact that there was one at all, the fact that someone was held accountable for this suffering at the end of the day."
Donna Urschel is a freelance writer in the Washington area.