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A Review of Stuart Eizenstat's Imperfect Justice, An Inside Account of the Holocaust Restitution Efforts of the 1990s


Friday, Feb. 21, 2003

Stuart Eizenstat, Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II (Public Affairs 2003)

In January 1995, then-U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Stuart E. Eizenstat received a phone call at his office in Brussels, from then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke. The call started off a six-year quest - in which Eizenstat sought to gain restitution for Holocaust survivors, in the United States and abroad, as well as for the heirs of those who perished. Imperfect Justice recounts that quest.

Eizenstat worked through the last hours of the Clinton Administration helping to obtain settlements in class action suits against private Swiss, German, Austrian, and French companies for over $8 billion in compensation. As Eizentat recounts, "[t]hese settlements benefited not only Jews whose suffering is beyond human understanding, but also some one million non-Jews who have received little or no compensation for over 50 years for their wartime mistreatment."

In recent years, there has been a wide range of books documenting the complicity of various companies, banks and governments in Holocaust-related atrocities. Eizenstat's book does not purport to be an exhaustive or thoroughly researched account of this complicity. (Eizenstat did, however, take Switzerland to task in a 1997 report that asserted that "The neutrals continued to profit for their trading links with Germany and thus contributed to prolonging one of the bloodiest conflicts in history," and he continues to stand by that conclusion is his book.)

Nor does Imperfect Justice pretend to offer an exhaustive historical account of the Holocaust reparations movement in the 1990s. Rather, it is the account of the consummate insider - who was at the negotiating table and in the boardrooms. As such, it is invaluable.

A Fly on the Wall: Eizenstat as Both Participant and Observer

As his story unfolds, we see how Eizenstat and a kaleidoscope of other actors - including flamboyant American class action lawyers, European and U.S. government officials and regulators, and Jewish philanthropic leaders - became embroiled in numerous conflicts. The disputes related to dormant Swiss bank accounts, stolen and looted art, unpaid insurance claims, and compensation for forced and slave laborers.

At some points, the chapters get a little bogged down in figures and details, as the same groups of lawyers squabble with various governments (Swiss, German, Austrian) and private actors (banks, insurers, manufacturing conglomerates) over the dollar figures to be paid out in out-of-court settlements. Nevertheless, the story remains gripping, for Eizenstat tells it with flair, and with due regard for the role of politics

Amidst what seems like a three-ring circus, Eizenstat watches all. He is not bashful about criticizing the policies of the parties with whom he had to deal - from the recalcitrant and unrepentant Swiss banking community, to some of the vociferous class action lawyers who seemed to be publicity mavens.

Strong Character Portraits Strengthen the Story

The story begins with the unusual pair of World Jewish Congress leaders: its President, Edgar Bronfman (also a friend of Clinton's), and its Secretary, Israel Singer. The two teamed up with New York State Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato to create a public campaign that Europe could not ignore.

Senator D'Amato, meanwhile, is the "fifty-nine-year-old slightly balding grandson of Italian immigrants" who is a "[f]erocious champion of his constituent's interests." (D'Amato's constituency included the largest number of Holocaust survivors in the United States.)

Attorney Edward Fagan is less charitably portrayed. According to Eizenstat, his tactics were "maddening, upsetting and disruptive." Yet Fagan "[n]onetheless, raised the visibility and did the legwork to sign up more plaintiffs" than the other attorneys.

Other characters also play important - indeed, crucial roles. Eizenstat recounts how federal Judge Edward Korman, of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, got the class action plaintiffs attorneys and the lawyers representing the Swiss banks to meet at Gage and Tollner, a famous restaurant in Brooklyn, for a lobster dinner and for settlement talks. It is Korman whom Eizenstat credits with brokering a $1.25 million settlement with the Swiss banks.

Why Did it Take So Long To Consider the Reparations Issue?

Eizenstat's account of how the Holocaust became a political and diplomatic battleground fifty years after the war's end is fascinating. Among other virtues, Imperfect Justice suggests a partial answer to a frequently-asked question: Why did it take so long for the move for restitution to gain public importance - until the mid-1990s, fifty years after the War's end?

One reason, Eizenstat notes, is that at the end of the war, the focus was on the resettlement of refugees. Moreover, until the Berlin Wall fell, some archives and records that could have provided evidence to support compensation claims were inaccessible.

Ultimately, Germany accepted that it was once again called upon to account for its wartime atrocities, this time for those committed by private industry. Austria struggled, seeing itself as both victim and Nazi collaborator. France came to terms with its historical responsibility for the Vichy regime.

The Gap Between The Settlements and True Justice

After six years of effort, Eizenstat and his team secured settlements totaling $8 billion for the victims of the Nazis, Jews and non-Jews alike, from some of the most powerful firms in Europe. This was certainly a great victory, particularly in light of the multiple barriers that existed to achieving restitution for Holocaust survivors and their heirs.

The settlements' victory, however significant, was still a far cry from full justice for the plaintiffs. Although the Swiss banks reached a settlement in 1998, no funds were disbursed until November 2001. Similar problems plagued compensation relating to settlement for forced labor and insurance claims. Many Holocaust survivors died without the opportunity to receive restitution.

Still, many bright spots remain. In addition to the settlements, other measures have been taken - the result, as Eizenstat notes, of the "intensive, direct, and unique involvement of a team of senior U.S. government officials."

Thanks to this teams' efforts, religious properties are being returned; museums are locating thousands of looted paintings returning them to their true owners; long dormant bank accounts are being identified; and insurance policies of Holocaust victims are being paid.

Meanwhile, sixteen countries, including the United States, have established historical commissions to review their roles in World War II. They, and we, will all continue to reckon with the atrocities of World War II, and that itself is progress. As Imperfect Justice shows, it is still possible, despite rough political waters, to achieve great strides towards moral victories.

Anita Ramasastry is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and the Associate Director of the Shidler Center for Law, Commerce & Technology. She served as a senior attorney and advisor to the Claims Resolution Tribunal for Dormant Accounts in Switzerland from 1998 to 1999.

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