Eizenstat worries over restitution effort

WASHINGTON — With the Clinton administration fast drawing to a close, Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat is concerned that the Holocaust restitution effort he has directed for the last five years is "not an issue that, so far as I know, is on the radar screen of the incoming administration."

Eizenstat said the issue has not been a priority for the Bush transition team.

As President Clinton's special envoy on Holocaust issues, Eizenstat has overseen dramatic changes in the area of World War II-era restitution. That ranges from negotiating major settlements worth some $7 billion with the Swiss banks and German and Austrian governments, to helping set up a 10-country task force on Holocaust education to promote national memorial days and programming in schools.

The efforts made by the U.S. government have been bipartisan and nonpolitical, Eizenstat said, and it is important that countries think the new U.S. leadership will continue to make the issue a priority. The Bush team should build on the momentum of the last few years, he said, and have a point person who will get the attention of foreign governments.

"There's no reason the next administration shouldn't grab it and give as much emphasis to it as we have," he said.

Eizenstat's record on restitution makes those involved in the issue all the more concerned about his imminent departure.

Under his leadership, a number of political negotiations got under way and ultimately bore fruit. Preparations now are being made to disburse money from a fund established by Swiss banks that misappropriated Jewish assets during the Holocaust, as well as from a settlement with Germany that covers slave labor and "Aryanized" property, and which earmarks $350 million for Holocaust education projects.

Interestingly, Eizenstat is proudest of some of the less-publicized successes of the restitution efforts, such as the fact that 17 countries have established historical commissions to examine their roles in handling Holocaust-era assets.

These commissions are important, Eizenstat explained, because at some point the settlement funds are going to evaporate, but Holocaust education must continue.

"The real question is what memory will be left," he said. "I think it's important that the last memory of the Holocaust not be money, but memory and lessons learned."

For Eizenstat, 57, his most important accomplishment is having "brought back the unfinished business of World War II and the Holocaust to the public's eye, of doing some measure of justice to the elderly survivors, and creating a greater sense of memory for those who perished."

He hopes that restitution efforts have put "a nail in the coffin of historical revisionism," and have helped people understand the "horrific dimensions not only of the loss of life but the incredible effort to destroy the entire culture," and how the Nazis viewed property confiscation as a way to finance their war effort.

As domestic policy adviser to President Carter, he worked on the American response to the Arab economic boycott of Israel and on Soviet refugee policy, among other issues.

Between Democratic administrations, Eizenstat, a Conservative Jew, worked as a lawyer.

Eizenstat also has pushed the insurance claims process via the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims. which is dealing with charges that European insurers refused payments on policies taken out by Jews who later perished in the Holocaust.

The first big step came last month when Italian insurer Assicurazioni Generali agreed to pay $100 million to settle Holocaust-era insurance claims and provide humanitarian assistance to survivors.

He plans to work on these issues to the very last days of his term, as negotiations are still under way with Austria on a broad range of issues. It gives him a "sense of satisfaction," Eizenstat said, that he helped bring justice to survivors and helped people understand the dimensions of the Nazis' property confiscation.

Eizenstat plans to spend several months at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars writing a book on Holocaust restitution issues.