Deputy for the dead who will not be deflected

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The Independent Online
Edgar Bronfman, head of the Seagram drinks empire, is being compared with the Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. However, his quarry is not ex-SS men but the riches of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. He has unpeeled from Switzerland its image of cosy decency and neutrality and given hope to Holocaust survivors that money they and their kin entrusted to Swiss banks might be retrieved.

It began with the election of Mr Bronfman, who is 66, to the presidency of the World Jewish Congress in 1981. The son of a Russian-born Jew who founded Seagram, he had for much of his life been not much interested in his Jewish heritage.

His first campaign for world Jewry was the dishonouring of Kurt Waldheim at the end of his spell in the office of UN secretary-general. As he bared the complicity in war crimes of Mr Waldheim as a German officer in the Balkans, Mr Waldheim threatened lawsuits. But Mr Bronfman triumphed.

In 1995 he decided that it was time to apply his vigour as a corporate chief to the refusal of Switzerland's banks to come clean on their role as bankers to Hitler and to unearth assets entrusted to them by so many Jews. The day the banks rue was in September 1995, when he confronted the bank directors, who offered to settle with a $30m package. "They didn't understand that what we want is a proper accounting, not a pay- off", he says now. Since then, he has demanded the banks uncover all records of Jewish accounts and repay money they still hold. "This is the last chapter of the Holocaust," he told Vanity Fair. "And it must be written correctly". The US Congress remained a lead player, and persuaded Switzerland to lift its banking secrecy laws to begin investigation of the assets.

Until the creation of a $70m (pounds 43m) fund by the banks this week, it also led a call for a boycott of Swiss banks. Mr Bronfman has not been deflected; like Mr Wiesenthal, he never allows niceties and international diplomacy to obscure his goal. Of Switzerland and its chocolate-and-watch persona, he bluntly maintains: "They acted as the total ally of the Third Reich".