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Los Angeles Times Interview

Edgar Bronfman Sr.

Tracking Nazi Plunder Into Switzerland's Secret Vaults

April 13, 1997|Walter Russell Mead | 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

NEW YORK — 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?

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