Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, who serves as Special Negotiator for the Claims Conference, and Holocaust survivor leader Roman Kent, are Co-Chairs of the Claims Conference delegation negotiating with the German government.
During a decade and a half of public service in three U.S. administrations, Ambassador Eizenstat has held a number of key senior positions, including the following: chief White House domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter, Ambassador to the European Union, Under Secretary of Commerce, Undersecretary of State, and Deputy Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton Administration, as well as Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for Holocaust Issues. A lawyer and diplomat, he is the author of several books, including “Imperfect Justice”, “The Future of the Jews” and, most recently, “President Carter and the White House Years” (with a foreword by Madeleine Albright), published in April 2018.
A Holocaust activist and retired businessman, Roman Kent was born in Lodz, Poland. A survivor of Auschwitz and other concentration camps, he came to the United States in 1946. He was appointed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, serves as President of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, Chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and President of the International Auschwitz Committee.
Q: How did you get involved in fighting on behalf of survivors?
RK: Six million were murdered. Most of my family was murdered. It’s the same for most of the survivors. How could I not care about this?
SE: Although I grew up in a household in which my father and other family members served in World War II, I never heard discussion of the Holocaust growing up in Atlanta; it was never mentioned in Hebrew School or my synagogue, I never met a survivor, and I never took a course in school — because none were then available.
In 1968, I was the research director for the Hubert Humphrey presidential campaign in Washington. Arthur Morse, a colleague, was the author of a path-breaking book called “While Six Million Died,” which was a revelation for me. We discussed what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was an icon in our house, knew about the genocide of the Jews. He failed to act on what he knew, and that was really a profound shock.
I also learned about the 1938 Evian Conference which tried, unsuccessfully, to have countries lift their rigid immigration quotas for Jewish refugees. I remember saying to myself, literally, I’m in a presidential campaign and if I ever have the chance in government to do anything to rectify this injustice, I have to try to do it.
The passion comes not only from recognizing what could have been done to prevent the Holocaust, but also a passion for the Jewish people who, over three millennia leading up to the Holocaust, suffered untold degradation, discrimination, expulsion and violence. I also learned later that three sisters of my grandfather were murdered in Lithuania.
In 1994, during the Clinton administration, when I served in Brussels as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, Richard Holbrooke, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs, asked if I would take on a dual assignment for Holocaust property restitution.
Q: How did you become involved with the Claim Conference’s negotiating team?
SE: In 2008, the Claims Conference asked if I would be willing to work as a volunteer – unpaid – to head negotiations with the German government. About the same time, Secretary of State Clinton asked me to head the U.S. delegation to the Prague Conference on Holocaust Assets, which 47 countries would attend, as her special representative. We negotiated the Terezin Declaration, the first part of which focused on the social needs of survivors and what countries could do to help. I later served as Special Advisor to Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of State Kerry on Holocaust issues negotiating agreements with Lithuania and France.
RK: When [then Claims Conference President] Rabbi Israel Miller first asked me to join the negotiations team, I didn’t want to have anything to do with Germany. The only time I had been to Germany was to visit Bergen-Belsen with my wife, to say kaddish. When I said no to Rabbi Miller, he said, “Remember, you’re not doing it for yourself. You’re doing it for the Jewish community and we need you.” So I joined, reluctantly.
Q: What was it like for you to first sit down at the negotiating table with the Germans?
RK: The first time that I was sitting at the table, I was wondering if some of them could be the ones who killed my parents. I felt very uncomfortable and told them that. They reacted understandingly and throughout the meetings respected what I said, because then, nobody had the courage to say that and to understand what it means to sit down next to them and discuss compensations. You can’t make something whole again.
I would say that the negotiations were difficult. It’s not easy when you ask for hundreds of millions of euros, and it’s not easy to get it.
SE: Jews had been ignored and marginalized during the war, they were of secondary importance to the Allies, and at least this was one way of saying the governments may have ignored you, but we’re not ignoring you now.
Q: What would you say to survivors when the Claims Conference negotiations don’t achieve everything you wanted?
SE: I come to the negotiating table always keeping in mind the unique feature that never in the history of warfare has a defeated country compensated individual civilians that it injured or killed. My external persona has always been very understated and calm, but I boil inside when I think of what has been done to our people. I try to bring, in a measured way, that sense of passion to the negotiating table. I have a profound respect for the German government and the German people who have come to terms with their past and continue in good faith to negotiate for the benefit of survivors.
You don’t get anything by being belligerent but, at the same time, I just have a passion that it’s unacceptable for people who suffered so much to live their declining years in deprivation.
RK: We have never gotten everything we want. But, we never give up. And we never will. We could walk away from the negotiating table – or keep negotiating forever in an effort to get everything – but do we have the moral right to deny the aid to the Holocaust survivors who need it so much today?
Q: What are the most important accomplishments?
SE: The Claims Conference had negotiated pensions, one-time payments and programs dating back to 1952. [Founding Executive Director Saul] Kagan had negotiated pensions for hundreds of thousands of survivors before I had a bar-mitzvah, so the context is important. Very important work had been done building the framework for German negotiations, even dating back to the 1950s.
In just the last few years, we have negotiated 170,000 one-time payments for Jews who had never received any previous compensation from Germany and now have been recognized for the very first time. During the same time, another 16,000 Holocaust survivors have been added to those receiving pensions. But for me, the funds we have negotiated for home care and food are the most important. There are 150,000 Holocaust survivors globally who are getting some welfare service subsidized by the Claims Conference. We’ve negotiated over $2 billion but the services – home care, food, medicine, transportation, Café Europa, etc. – that the money buys are lifesaving. We created a new child survivor program and covered for the first time flight victims who currently live in the former Soviet Union.
Q: Looking ahead, with the current economic troubles in Europe, could anything derail what you’ve been working on?
SE: The last couple of years have been particularly trying because of the financial crisis and the issue of refugees. Germany is being asked to bear increasingly more burdens. But Germany has a special, unique, multiparty agreement that will not allow financial crises and other problems to intrude on its historic responsibilities. And for that, Germany deserves enormous credit. I especially want to recognize the contributions of our negotiating partner now–former Finance Secretary of State Werner Gatzer. But so does the Claims Conference. Our delegation is first rate with passionate effective representatives — we work as one team. The Claims Conference developed the trust, the competence, the relationships over the years, that have made this extraordinary relationship possible. Greg [Schneider] has established tremendous relationships with his counterparts and is a first rate professional whose devotion in only surpassed by his skill – and he has assembled an excellent team, including Assistant EVP Karen Heilig and Representative in Germany Ruediger Mahlo. By the time our delegation arrives in the negotiating room, a lot of groundwork has been laid – a lot.
Q: Is there a message that you would like to give survivors?
SE: My great regret is that we haven’t been able to do more. Putting to one side the Claims Conference negotiations, I regret that it took so many decades after the war to get at these other issues, with the Swiss, with the German slave laborers, the Austrians, with the French banks, the communal property, with looted art and insurance. As long as I have an ounce of energy left in me, I’m going to try to find every avenue, every vehicle, every institution that will enable me to continue to do belated and imperfect justice.
Claims Conference Negotiating Delegation includes Amb. Stuart E. Eizensat and Roman Kent, Co-Chairs, Amb. Colette Avital, Rabbi Andrew Baker, Ben Helfgott, Amb. Reuven Merhav and Marian Turski as well as CC EVP Greg Schneider.