Williams welcomes role on Holocaust panel

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Calling the Holocaust "the most shocking, inhumane experience" in history, the Rev. Cecil Williams welcomed his surprise nomination to a presidential commission investigating Holocaust assets.

The spiritual leader of San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church and a noted human rights activist, Williams is one of 12 named to the commission Monday.

The group will focus on unearthing evidence of gold, jewelry, bank accounts, insurance policies and artworks that came under the control of the U.S. government after Hitler came to power.

"I am honored and proud," said Williams. "I don't usually serve on boards and commissions."

Acknowledging that he doesn't have expertise in Holocaust matters, he agreed to accept the position because "I don't want the Holocaust to happen again."

Rita Semel, former director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and a Williams' friend for more than 25 years, applauded his appointment. "He is a very compassionate man. He understands the effects of prejudice and reconciliation," she said.

President Clinton announced the formation of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States on Monday, pushing the government to take a lead role in rectifying profiteering from the Nazis' victims.

World Jewish Congress President Edgar M. Bronfman chairs the blue-ribbon commission that is comprised of government officials and private-sector leaders. Nominations were made by members of Congress and by the White House.

A friend of the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Williams has been the Clintons' host and guest on several occasions.

While Williams, the only clergy member nominated, said he was not sure why he was chosen, he holds strong credentials as a civil rights activist and an advocate for the needy.

Glide Memorial runs a massive kitchen, offering more than 3,500 cooked meals daily as well as programs for people with AIDS and substance addictions.

Williams is a member of the board of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Change and participated in the historic 1963 civil rights march with King.

He has also been a longtime ally of the Jewish community, rallying on civil rights causes with the local Jewish Community Relations Council. His church's programs have received significant financial support from area Jews.

Williams' passion for justice will make him a powerful asset to the commission, said Rabbi Doug Kahn, the JCRC's executive director.

"The whole issue over Holocaust assets is first an issue of justice — justice that has been denied for 50 years or more."

Williams has previously visited the Holocaust museums in Israel and Washington D.C. "I was incredibly moved. To see such evil stirs the soul," the minister said.

To fill the hole in his knowledge on Holocaust assets matters, Williams plans to pursue research on his own.

Leaders of the JCRC and other local Jewish agencies are hoping Williams will meet with area survivors. They also want to brief Williams on current concerns about Holocaust assets.

"Hopefully he can help speed this process," said Ali Cannon, program director of the Holocaust Center of Northern California. "There certainly are a number of survivors who have tried to get reparations. But for many it has been a red-tape hell."

Facing a deadline to issue a report by the end of next year, Williams said the commission has little time to spare.

"I know there are many survivors who probably don't have but a few years to live. We need to get something done before another life is lost."

Vowing to bring sensitivity to a matter now tangled in international legal issues, Williams cited the inspiration of author Elie Wiesel, whom he often quotes in sermons. He also told of hearing painful stories from his own grandfather on his experiences as a slave.

"I have lived under segregation and suffered injustices," Williams said. "I think my own experiences will bring some kind of perception which will help the commission take action and express our humanity to the Jewish community."

In addition to Bronfman and Williams, other members of the commission include Polish survivor Roman Kent, Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz, former U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder and former IRS Commissioner Margaret Richardson and lawyers Ira Leesfield and William Singer.

Filling out the commission are government representative Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, Patrick Henry of the Army, James Robinson of the Justice Department and Neal Wolin of the Treasury.