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Elan Steinberg, World Jewish Congress leader, dies at 59

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Elan Steinberg, a child of Holocaust survivors who as executive director of the World Jewish Congress helped Nazi victims and their heirs reclaim more than $1 billion from long abandoned Swiss bank accounts, died April 6 at a hospital in New York City. He was 59.

He had complications from lymphatic cancer, said his wife, Sharon Steinberg.

Mr. Steinberg, who led the Congress from 1986 to 2004, was the son of Polish Jews who survived during World War II by hiding in the woods. He once told an interviewer that he considered himself “a miracle child and in a perverse kind of way our revenge against Hitler.”

That visceral conviction helped Mr. Steinberg become one of the most influential, if controversial, leaders in the history of the World Jewish Congress. Founded in Geneva in 1936, the organization was created to coordinate a Jewish response to the growing Nazi power in Europe. It later moved its headquarters to New York.

Under Mr. Steinberg’s leadership, the Congress took on the second-generation repercussions of the Holocaust. These included what Mr. Steinberg considered political and cultural affronts to the memory of Holocaust victims and, most prominently, an epic legal battle to obtain restitution of money deposited by European Jews in Swiss bank accounts during and before World War II.

In contrast to the World Jewish Congress’s more reserved diplomacy of the past, he adopted what he called “a newer, American-style leadership — less timid, more forceful, unashamedly Jewish.”

When former U.N. secretary general Kurt Waldheim sought the Austrian presidency in 1986, Mr. Steinberg led his organization’s efforts to help uncover decades-old documents that linked Waldheim to a German military unit in the Balkans that deported thousands of Jews to concentration camps.

While never proven to have committed war crimes, Waldheim had hidden much of that military record. Many Austrian voters were said to have recognized their own war stories in Waldheim’s and ultimately elected him.

Simon Wiesenthal, the Austrian Holocaust survivor who became a prominent Nazi hunter, called Waldheim an “opportunist” but not a war criminal. Wiesenthal said Mr. Steinberg had damaged the fragile relationship between Austrians and Jews with his public relations campaign against Waldheim.

In the following years, Mr. Steinberg shifted the World Jewish Congress’s focus to the Swiss bank accounts. The matter had received renewed attention in the early 1990s, in large part because the fall of Communist governments in Eastern Europe had opened diplomatic channels and made Holocaust-era documents available for the first time since the end of World War II.

In 1995, along with Edgar M. Bronfman Sr. — the former head of his family’s Seagram distillery company and then the Congress’s president — Mr. Steinberg began coordinating private meetings with the Swiss government about the accounts. After complicated negotiations, Switzerland’s largest commercial banks agreed in a settlement to pay $1.25 billion to Holocaust survivors and their heirs.

“If credit is due to a single group for getting Swiss officials to acknowledge the issue of dormant accounts and Switzerland’s dealings with the Nazis,” the New York Times reported in 1997, “it is due to the World Jewish Congress — under the leadership of Mr. Steinberg” and his colleagues.

Some Jewish leaders objected to what they considered Mr. Steinberg’s myopic attention on the bank accounts.

“The fact is that six million martyrs were tortured and killed,” wrote Roman Kent, the chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, in a letter to the Jewish publication the Forward. “The real perpetrators are being put into the background by the ‘glitter of gold.’ Is that how we want the Holocaust to be remembered?”

Under Mr. Steinberg’s leadership, the World Jewish Congress successfully argued for a Catholic convent to be moved off the grounds of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland where more than 1 million people died, most of them Jews.

The group also convinced director Steven Spielberg to film “Schindler’s List” (1993) outside Auschwitz — not inside — because the place is “the largest Jewish graveyard in the world,” Mr. Steinberg said.

In his view, such memory-keeping was a matter of urgent importance.

“In every major city in the United States on any given day,” he told The Washington Post in 1997, “there is a funeral of a Holocaust survivor.”

Elan Steinberg was born June 2, 1952, in Rishon LeZion, Israel. At 2, he immigrated with his family to New York.

His father, an accountant, got a job at Zabar’s, the Manhattan delicatessen. But the elder Steinberg was paralyzed during a surgical procedure before he started the job and was never able to work again, Mr. Steinberg’s wife said.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Steinberg received a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College and a master’s degree from the City University of New York, both in political science. He taught at CUNY and then joined the World Jewish Congress in 1974, according to the Congress. He became executive director of the American section in 1984 and overall executive director two years later.

Survivors include his wife of 23 years, Sharon Cohen Steinberg of New York; three children, Max Steinberg, Harry Steinberg and Lena Steinberg, all of New York; and one brother.

Mr. Steinberg’s death coincided with the first day of Passover, the Jewish holiday that marks the exodus of Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

“One of the earliest ways I related to my parents’ hiding and escaping the woods ... was at the Passover Seder,” Mr. Steinberg once said, according to the book “Second Generation Voices: Reflections by Children of Holocaust Survivors and Perpetrators.” “We all have to see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt.”

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