Lifetime Achiever: Stuart Eizenstat
Stuart Eizenstat already had plenty to do as U.S. ambassador to the European Union in 1995 when Richard Holbrooke, then assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, asked him to take on a new project. Holbrooke wanted Eizenstat to help Jewish groups trying to reclaim European real estate that had been taken from them during the Holocaust.
Eizenstat soon realized that the job would go well beyond that assignment. "I read an article about dormant Swiss bank accounts set up by Jews fleeing Nazi oppression," says Eizenstat, now 70. "After the war, they or their beneficiaries went back to reclaim those accounts, only to be told that the accounts didn't exist."
Eizenstat went on to identify more than 50,000 Swiss accounts that had vanished—after being told by Swiss banking officials that only 750 such accounts existed. Between 1997 and 2003, Eizenstat helped broker settlements with Swiss and French banks, as well as the governments of Germany and Austria, obtaining nearly $8 billion in compensation for Holocaust victims. He did not represent individual plaintiffs; his client was the U.S. government, which had decided to put its weight behind Holocaust restitution. "Because of Stuart, it was no longer just Jewish organizations negotiating by themselves," says Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Council. "Now they had the power of the U.S. government behind them, which made the discussions more effective."
Eizenstat's role was to oversee the monetary negotiations. "Stu was the right person to facilitate those negotiations," says Robert Swift of Kohn Swift & Graf, who filed the first case on behalf of plaintiffs suing the Swiss banks in 1996. "He had to be an honest facilitator to everyone involved, [including] the plaintiffs lawyers, the foreign governments, the banks, the Jewish groups. He had the patience of Job."
A veteran of the Johnson, Carter, and Clinton administrations, Eizenstat established Powell Goldstein's Washington, D.C., office in the eighties (the firm has since merged with Bryan Cave). In 2001 he joined Covington & Burling, where he heads the firm's international practice.
But of all his accomplishments, Eizenstat says he is proudest of his work for Holocaust victims. He recalls being shocked by declassified documents contained in historian Arthur Morse's book While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy that showed the indifference of the U.S. government to European Jews: "I said to myself that if I ever had a chance to rectify this horrible tragedy, I would do it."
IN HIS OWN WORDS
What would you have done differently or what is your biggest regret?
In 1991 I was offered the presidency of Brandeis University. It was the hardest personal decision I've ever had to make, but I declined it because I wanted the chance to work for the federal government again. I always wondered how things would have been if I had accepted.
What is your greatest personal accomplishment?
Having a wonderful marriage for 45 years, with loving children, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren.
What is your biggest professional accomplishment?
Getting belated justice for victims and survivors of the Holocaust by negotiating $8 billion in recovery for them.
What book has influenced you the most?
Arthur Morse's While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy.
Portrait photography by Michael J.N. Bowles.