Elan Steinberg: Tenacious leader of the World Jewish Congress

 

Elan Steinberg, widely viewed as one of the greatest post-war Jewish political strategists, was the former executive director of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) who paved the way for Nazi victims and their heirs to reclaim more than $1bn from abandoned Swiss bank accounts in what he called a new "American-style" assertiveness.

Steinberg, who considered himself "a miracle child and in a perverse kind of way our revenge against Hitler", took his no-nonsense, aggressive position and challenged the former United Nations Secretary-General, Kurt Waldheim, over his Nazi past when Waldheim was seeking the Austrian presidency in 1986. However, this approach brought him into conflict with senior Jewish figures, who felt that he was "undoing" years of painstaking reconciliation work.

Born in Israel's fourth city, Rishon LeZion, in 1952, Elan Steinberg was the son of Polish Jews, Max and Rose, who survived the pogroms and the Holocaust, spending most of the Second World War in hiding. After the war they departed for Israel. Two years after Steinberg's birth, the family immigrated to New York; he grew up in Brooklyn. He obtained his BA from Brooklyn College, before receiving his master's in political science from the City University of New York, where he later taught.

Founded in Geneva in 1936, the WJC was created to coordinate a Jewish response to the rise of Nazi power in Europe. It later moved its headquarters to New York. Steinberg joined the WJC in 1978, aged 26, as its representative at the UN and rose quickly through the ranks to become its executive director – first of the American section, then of the world body. He was their key spokesman and primary behind-the-scenes strategist. One of his first successes was the part he played in persuading the Vatican and Spain to recognise Israel.

Steinberg viewed the WJC's "quiet diplomacy" as somewhat outdated in its approach; thus, contrary to the organisation's more reserved diplomacy of the past, he adopted "a newer, American-style leadership – less timid, more forceful, unashamedly Jewish."

As head of the Congress from 1986 to 2004, Steinberg tackled what he considered political and cultural affronts to the memory of Holocaust victims. He soon illustrated his relentless approach when he sought to expose Waldheim's military past, which had been hidden for decades. Although documents were discovered connecting Waldheim to a German military unit in the Balkans linked to atrocities, he was never proven to have committed any war crimes. He was ultimately elected as Austrian President; many voters, including former Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, himself Jewish, did not want outsiders telling them who their President should be. The campaign, however, hurt Waldheim, who was banned from the US and other countries. He did not seek re-election in 1992.

Steinberg's pursuit of Waldheim ruffled feathers, however. Simon Wiesenthal, the Austrian Holocaust survivor who became the most prominent Nazi hunter, called Waldheim an "opportunist" but not a war criminal. Wiesenthal believed that by inserting itself into Austria's internal politics, Steinberg and the WJC had "damaged the fragile relationship of reconciliation between Austrians and Jews". Steinberg countered that electing Waldheim would stain all Austrians, claiming, "In the whole world it will be said that a former Nazi and a liar is the representative of Austria."

Thereafter, Steinberg and the WJC focused on the Swiss banks. Following the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in the early 90s, new diplomatic channels were opened as well as vast warehouses of Holocaust-era documents. In undoubtedly his greatest triumph, Steinberg entered into an epic legal battle to obtain restitution of money deposited by European Jews in Swiss bank accounts during and before the Second World War. Steinberg said, "There is no denying that the Swiss were the bankers and launderers for Hitler's Germany." Working tirelessly, he helped to organise the research, hearings, press leaks, lawsuit and complicated negotiations that eventually led, in 1995, to the Swiss banks agreeing to pay $1.25bn in compensation.

Nonetheless, there was some discontent. The director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, said that he applauded the WJC's "persistence", but worried that the Swiss might begin to see Jews as "their enemy". He said the WJC's crusade "fed into the stereotype that Jews have money, that it's the most important thing to them."

Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, explained, "The real perpetrators are being put into the background by the 'glitter of gold'. Is that how we want the Holocaust to be remembered?"

Unperturbed, Steinberg pushed ahead and successfully argued for a Catholic convent to be moved off the grounds of Auschwitz. The WJC also convinced director Steven Spielberg to film Schindler's List (1993) outside Auschwitz rather than inside, because the place is "the largest Jewish graveyard in the world," Steinberg said. In his view, such memory-keeping was a matter of urgent importance.

Steinberg resigned as head in 2004 but remained a consultant to the WJC's president, Ronald S. Lauder. Later he became a vice-president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.

Steinberg died of complications from lymphatic cancer, aged 59. He is survived by his wife and their three children.

Elan Steinberg, strategist: born Rishon LeZion, Israel 2 June 1952; married Sharon Cohen (three children); died Manhattan, New York 6 April 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map