The way then-president Bill Clinton told it, Edgar Bronfman had “buttonholed Hillary.” The president, speaking at a World Jewish Congress gala at Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel in September 2000, was referring to a meeting in April 1996 between Bronfman and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The WJC president had “buttonholed” the first lady at a fundraiser in order to seek her intercession in bringing the power of the Clinton administration to bear on assisting with the recovery of dormant Swiss bank accounts that had belonged to victims of the Nazis. “She told me I had to see him the next day, because the time for redress was running out,” President Clinton recounted.
From shortly thereafter until its last days in office, the Clinton administration was deeply engaged in the effort to recover Jewish bank accounts, artworks, communal properties, insurance policies and other assets that had been confiscated or lost in Europe during the Nazi and communist eras.
Years later, we have come full circle. The former first lady is now President Obama’s secretary of state, and Hillary Clinton is once again in a position to assert American leadership on behalf of the victims of Nazism.
During the Clinton administration, under the leadership of Stuart Eizenstat at the Treasury and State departments, there was a dramatic four years of international diplomatic conferences and pledges to locate and restore Nazi-looted assets, as well as intensive research into nations’ World War II-era behavior. Meeting at the State Department, 44 nations agreed in 1998 to the Washington Principles for the identification and restitution of Nazi-era looted art.
The American government shepherded multinational talks that led to German and Austrian compensation for slave and forced labor. The State Department created an Office of Holocaust Issues to develop, implement and monitor American policy on the recovery of confiscated assets, compensation for damages and Holocaust remembrance.
Although American influence was essential, things did not always go smoothly. Jewish organizations, politicians and the federal government often were at loggerheads on priorities and tactics. Some Jewish organizations sought boycotts, while some elected officials — on the federal, state and local levels — demanded economic sanctions on European corporations to force their compliance. But the American government, which called the shots, vigorously opposed sanctions.
In one particularly memorable hearing of the Senate Banking Committee in 1998, chaired by Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato of New York, Eizenstat was blistering in his opposition to sanctions. “I get paid to make judgments about how our actions affect foreign countries,” he said. “I can assure you that far from helping Holocaust survivors achieve a just and fair settlement, sanctions will delay and retard the process — making it more difficult for us to get a measure of justice for Holocaust survivors.”
However restless and impatient some victims’ advocates were with Eizenstat, they were left largely adrift when the Clintons left the White House. Restitution efforts came to an abrupt halt under the Bush administration. The Office of Holocaust Issues didn’t close; it just limped along without any muscles to flex.
Some nations had routinely resisted restitution. There was too much political, social and economic tumult associated with the return of properties, especially those that had been nationalized by the postwar communist regimes.
The United States, of course, cannot be blamed for other nations’ resistance to returning plundered properties. But when restitution is virtually invisible for eight years on the American foreign policy agenda, no one takes it seriously. It was too easy an issue to ignore or dismiss.
Those days should be over. Hillary Clinton, who first raised the issue in the White House, arrives at the State Department just in time to re-assert American leadership and restore the luster to the Office of Holocaust Issues.
There is not a minute to lose. In June, diplomats from dozens of nations are expected to convene in Prague to report on the progress toward fulfilling the pledges made at the 1998 State Department conference. A Clinton State Department should do what the Clinton White House did: Hold these nations’ feet to the fire.
Marilyn Henry is the author of “Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of the Claims Conference” (Mitchell Vallentine & Company, 2006).