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Steinberg viewed the WJC's "quiet diplomacy" as somewhat outdated in its approach; thus, contrary to the organisation's more reserved diplomacy of the past, he adopted "a newer, American-style leadership – less timid, more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

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