Edgar Bronfman Sr.

Share via
Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a presidential fellow at the World Policy Institute. He is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin) and is writing a book about U.S. foreign policy

For 50 years, the Swiss banks kept their secrets--and their Holocaust gold. Then Edgar Bronfman Sr. turned up the heat, igniting a public-relations firestorm that forced the Swiss to open up their books--and their vaults. Now the scandal has spread: Spain, Portugal, France, Sweden and even the United States must face their own roles in the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

Bronfman was typing industriously on his computer keyboard when a visitor stepped into his Park Avenue office in the Seagram Building recently. He’s a two-finger typist, but those fingers tapped rapidly as the visitor admired the Miro tapestries on the wall and noted the new John Grisham novel on his conference table.

Bronfman, 67, projects a zest for life and controversy that belies his years and clearly unnerves many of his political and business adversaries. He needs all the energy he can get. The Seagram Co. Ltd.--including its entertainment company, MCA--has 30,000 employees worldwide, with more than $11 billion in annual revenue. As president of the World Jewish Conference, the elder Bronfman heads an umbrella group representing Jewish communities and organizations in 80 countries. In the last 15 years, his work at the conference has led him to meet with 55 heads of state.


Not all those heads of state were happy to see him. A tireless advocate of Jewish minorities the world over, Bronfman has clashed frequently and publicly with governments like that of the former Soviet Union when they sought to deny basic religious and human rights to Jews. Having helped raise the international outcry that led to near-universal ostracism for Austria’s former president Kurt Waldheim, Bronfman next turned his formidable political skills to the question of Jewish assets confiscated during the Nazi period. Banks, insurance companies and national governments have all felt the force of Bronfman’s personality and tongue. Swiss bankers and politicians have come to dread his displeasure as his public-relations skills and forceful advocacy have caught them off guard time and again.

Ultimately, what makes Bronfman so formidable isn’t his money or his experience, though that’s a big part of it. More important is the honesty and concentrated purpose he brings to bear on his goal--in this case, to obtain justice for Holocaust survivors and the heirs of Europe’s murdered Jews.


Question: You were involved with the international protests over Kurt Waldheim’s election as president of Austria. Has this fight been as difficult as the Waldheim fight?

Answer: More difficult in one sense. Much less difficult in another. The Waldheim controversy was more difficult in that there were a lot of people who were very critical of what we were trying to do, saying that you are interfering in elections of a sovereign state; and what proof do you have [about Waldheim’s war record]; and he’s a decent guy. All those complaints came from Jews who lived in Austria, who thought we were going to create a lot of anti-Semitism. It was from that standpoint that that was difficult. But the facts were right there and were stated and the world reaction to Waldheim was much more than I expected.

This battle, I suppose, has been made a lot easier by the Swiss themselves, who kept on doing stupid things to help create a huge background of public sympathy for our cause. This has become a moral issue and, as a moral issue, they’re on the wrong side of the railroad tracks . . . .

Nobody is happy with Swiss banks and their secrecy laws. Everybody knows Mobutu’s got money there. Marcos had money there. And drug lords have money there. I don’t know how many Communists have money there. So the banks are not exactly heroes. They’re black hats, which any white hat can attack with a certain amount of impunity.


Q: Is there any way of getting an estimate of how much money was stolen from victims of Nazi persecution?

A: Not really. They’re all guesstimates and some are good, and some are worse. It depends upon if you’re talking today’s currency, or if you’re talking about what happened in the 1930s. You take French paintings. Paintings that were worth $1,500 back then and are worth a million and a half, $15 million, who knows, today. So it’s really hard to estimate what was stolen. Also, when it comes to gold, we know that victims’ gold was stolen by the Nazis and then melted into bullion, given the Reichsbank stamp and sent to Switzerland. We know that. How much, we don’t know. And my estimate is huge amounts of gold teeth and rings. Anything they could steal, they stole. I mean, they were very efficient about it. In today’s money: double-digit billions. Just in gold, something like $400 million.

Q: Do you think the various commissions that are meeting on the bank issue are going to lead to a fair resolution of the problem?

A: Well, that requires the definition of what’s a fair resolution. Are we going to find out everything? No. Fifty years is a long time. The Union Bank of Switzerland was caught shredding, and God knows how much of the records are still intact. What I would like is, if those who have just claims at least get an answer to what happened. . . . A lot is going to depend upon the willingness of the Swiss banks to be forthcoming, because, as good as auditors are, it’s pretty hard for an auditor--even a trained good one--to find out everything . . . .

You know what we’re asking a whole country to do is something which is very difficult. I think we’re doing them a big favor. They’ll be able to locate their past honestly and then go forward to have an honorable future. If they don’t do that, they’ll always be corrupt.

Q: What’s your view of Sen. Alfonse D’Amato’s role in this?

A: . . . As a friend, and as a worker, a co-worker, he’s been fantastic. We were obviously getting nowhere at one time with the Swiss banks, when the stonewalling was just complete.


You have to figure out what kind of a lever to use if you have to move a very heavy rock. And it occurred to Israel Singer and myself that maybe that lever was the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Alfonse D’Amato. We arranged to have lunch with him at the Senate dining room in December 1995, and his eyes gleamed [when we raised] the subject.

Perhaps at the beginning, he thought it was good politically. He’s gone way beyond that. I think he really feels that there was a great injustice done here and he’s had the opportunity to right that and he’s very grateful that I gave him that opportunity. He’s got a terrific staff. With his help, we’ve got a lot of files declassified , [but] there’s some more to go. . . . We’ll get them open. A lot of money will have to be spent on researching these files. But it’ll tell us a lot of what did happen. And I don’t think the United States is going to come out of this looking so terrific . . . .

Q: How helpful have the White House and President Clinton been on all this?

A: Terrific. You know, I’ll tell you, the first hearing of the Senate Banking Committee was scheduled, I believe, for April 12. It was a Tuesday. And, of course, the Swiss bankers were dying to see me the Monday before, because they just wanted to make contact.

I didn’t speak to them but our people said, “You can’t meet with him; he’s having lunch with Mrs. Clinton on Monday.” The Swiss bankers said, “Well, if he’s here in Washington, we can meet him.” And our people said, “No, you don’t understand. He’s having lunch with Mrs. Clinton in his apartment in New York on Monday.” They started quavering at that.

That wasn’t a lie--but the real truth was that I was having a fund-raiser for the DNC in my apartment, and Mrs. Clinton was the guest of honor. And that Monday morning, New York magazine came out with an article on what we were doing with the Swiss bank thing. I ripped out the two pages and gave them to Mrs. Clinton.

She looks at the headline and said, “You think there’s any possibility of getting at the Swiss banks?”


And I said, “With your husband’s help, I really believe so.” Anyway, I know for a fact that she insisted with her husband that he see me that Tuesday afternoon at 5:30; we had 20 minutes together. And they got Stuart Eizenstadt on this whole subject of restitution in Europe. And he’s done a tremendous job of putting all the 11 agencies that were ordered by the White House together to cooperate. So the president’s been terrific.

As I was talking to the president, he said, “What is Sen. D’Amato doing in this?” I said, “Well, Mr. President, there may come a time when we’re going to need legislation in this matter.” And the president told me, “Well, I’ll tell you what then. If it comes to that, I will work with Sen. D’Amato on legislation on this.” Now this is in the middle of [D’Amato’s role in investigating] Whitewater.

I testified at the D’Amato hearings that Tuesday morning and left from there directly for a meeting at the White House. Now, if you were a Swiss banker, what do you think about that? . . . .

Q: Besides the Swiss, what are some of the other countries where you have been active trying to get restitution?

A: Well, in terms of all of Western Europe, first of all, let’s take Norway. Norway had 1,600 Jews who were delivered by the Quisling government to the Gestapo, I think, in ’43. Eight hundred returned after the war. What happened to the property of the 800 who were murdered? Fifty years after the event, the files were opened in 1995. And some bright, young guy was in the archives and discovers what happened to the property of the 800. It was auctioned off by the newly elected government of 1946 and put in the government’s pocket. Now all that property was bought at probably 10 cents on the dollar. Who had any money in 1946 in Europe? . . .

France is just beginning to do its homework. There’s now 3,000 accounts, about $175 million. And God knows what else there is in France, and France is now going to have to face its Vichy Government and what the Vichy Government did. Here’s a group of people who gave Jews to Germans before they even asked for them. Not that the Germans wouldn’t have asked, but the French anticipated--not a great thing to have in their history. They’re going to have to face all this.


I don’t know how much art is hanging in--never mind French museums--but Russian museums and elsewhere that belongs to French-Jewish families. This will all have to come out.

And then there’s Holland. How many Jews were taken from Holland and sent to Auschwitz? And how many returned? Damn few. About 130,000, I think, were killed. And Belgium . . . not quite so many, but 40,000-odd . . . . And what happened to their property?

We are talking very big figures.

We also know that gold and stuff was shipped to Portugal and Spain, and they will be setting up commissions . . . .

We’ll get everybody else to do the same thing. France will probably take a little longer. The French are looking for a polite way to do all this. There isn’t any polite way to do this. (Laughs) But I think President Chirac is determined, and our biggest problem is not the French government. It’s the French Jews. French Jews always try to be more French than the French and I’ve got to teach them--we’ve got to teach them--the way to fight anti-Semitism is not to cower but to stand tall. They may not like you but, dammit, they’ll respect you. I’d much rather be respected than liked any day of the week.

Q: Sweden was another neutral in the war. Has it come to terms with its past?

A: They’ve avoided it, so far, but they will no longer avoid it. They are now willing to face it. And they will face it. I think honorably. . . . The real problem in Sweden is that the Wallenbergs are unbelievably powerful there. Yet, it was the Wallenbergs’ bank which is probably the biggest sinner. As well as the ball bearings and everything that Sweden shipped to the Nazi Germans.

. . . Supposing the war was prolonged for 30 days, or 60 days, or 90 days because of this neutral trade. How many people were dying every day? Maybe 50,000 in the death camps? And how many people were dying on the battlefield? How much blood is there on the hands of people like the Swiss and the Swedes? . . . You can’t get those people back, you can’t make them pay for those lives--but at least you can say, “You did this.”


Q: Has your work on Holocaust restitution deepened your spiritual understanding?

A: Well, my understanding of my tradition has certainly grown in the last three or four years. I do study and do read the Bible . . . . [My friend and colleague] Israel [Singer], one day he opened this little book he carried with him at all times and read a little, and he put it away. I said, “What is that?” He said, “It’s a daily question in the Talmud?” I didn’t know there was a daily question in the Talmud. I said, “How long does it take to read it?” He said, “Seven years.”

“And what were you just reading?” I said. He gave it to me. There was a question of an ox. If an ox gores three people, you have to put the ox down. That’s the end of the ox. And that’s written in Torah and I’ve read that--I think it’s in Leviticus.

In any event, the Talmud was saying, “Now wait a minute, this animal has value. Who gets what? There’s the skin, there’s meat, its horns, etc.” And three pages later, you discover how they adjudicate who gets what.

That could sound very boring and arcane--until you realize what they’re trying to do was figure out justice. What was the justice? What was unjust? And suddenly you realize that we have torts and a system of fairness between people long before the English common law was even thought of. And that kind of just intrigued me--that these guys were sitting around doing all this stuff, re-reading the Bible, interpreting beyond what the Bible said in matters that would teach people how to live decent lives . . . .

Q: And your work with the property restitution, I suppose, has all been in an effort to serve that principle of justice?

A: Yeah. This is what this panel is about. This is about justice--about moral as well as financial restitution . . . . I want justice for the Holocaust survivors and for the heirs. They’re entitled to it. I will not sit still and have Jews cower anymore and take this nonsense. Why should we? We have rights as much as anybody else has rights. We should exercise them.