I want to tell you an improbable story about how fifty years after the end of World War II, long-forgotten victims of not only the greatest genocide in history, but of what we learned was also the greatest theft in history, finally achieved some belated, as I call it, imperfect justice. This includes: those who placed their most precious assets in the safest banking system in Europe--in Switzerland--to keep them out of Hitler's clutches (for fifty years after the war, they were unable to recover them); those who were forced into brutal slavery and forced labor at the hands of German and Austrian employers and were never compensated (most of these, by the way, were non-Jews in Eastern Europe); those whose hard work, businesses, and apartments were confiscated and never restituted after the war; those whose insurance policies were never paid; and more broadly, those whose entire culture was stolen from them. It is a story of how some of the world's most powerful corporations were finally held accountable five decades after the end of World War II. It is a story of political intrigue, of diplomacy at the highest levels, involving our president and the heads of government of a number of European countries. It is a story of threats of sanctions by state and local authorities, and a story that involves a colorful cast of characters reminiscent of a Shakespearean play.
It started for me on a typically wet, dreary January day in 1995 when I was in Brussels serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, and I got an unexpected call out of the blue from Richard Holbrook who was then Assistant Secretary of State and would later become our U.N. Ambassador. He asked if I would undertake a dual mission and become a special envoy for the State Department in addition to my ambassadorial responsibilities. My goal would be to encourage the new democracies in Eastern Europe, which had arisen after the fall of communism in the 1990s, to return to the reawakened, reemerging religious communities--Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish--the communally owned property that had been stolen, confiscated by Hitler, and then nationalized by the Communists. Churches, synagogues, schools, community centers, and even cemeteries, were all necessary to provide the physical infrastructure for these newly reawakened religious communities to begin practicing their religion again.
I did not immediately accept. My staff at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels was unanimously against my engaging in a diversion of my energies, they said, in a lose-lose proposition. I would be trapped between the religious communities in Eastern Europe that wanted all their property back and the new democracies that wanted to keep it because the property had been, over the decades, converted into income-producing property. I checked with my fellow ambassadors in Eastern Europe to get their advice, and they were unanimously opposed to my taking the job because I would be intruding on their turf on an unpopular issue trying to get their governments to give back property they did not want to give back. Yet I disregarded the advice and started down a path that lasted, not the few months that Holbrook told me was all that was involved, but the full balance of the six years of the Clinton Administration, ending only in the waning moments of the Administration in January 2001.
Now, why did I disregard that advice and start down this path of a dual job? Well, first, I think if you are in public service (and I hope those of you with an interest in public service will all find this out) and you are asked to do a job, you just do it; it is that simple. You are not paid by the hour, you are not in it for profit, and if you are given an additional responsibility, your instinct should always be to accept it, regardless of the additional burdens. But I have to admit, there was a more personal reason, and for that, just a little bit of background is necessary.
I grew up in Atlanta, in a Jewish household. My father and both uncles served in World War II, and both sets of grandparents came from Eastern Europe. But mine was a household in which the Holocaust was never once discussed. I never met with a survivor growing up, and I never took a course on the Holocaust or attended seminars like the one that Vanderbilt is having, because the Holocaust was not available as an academic course of study anywhere in the United States when I was going to college in the 1960s. It was not considered a suitable topic for academic study.
Well, if that is the case, with that kind of background, what then that gravitated me towards accepting Holbrook's job offer? I had two epiphanies when it came to the Holocaust. The first occurred in 1968, after I had graduated from Harvard Law School, and I was working on the Hubert Humphrey presidential campaign. One of my co-workers in the campaign was a person named Arthur Morse, who had just published a path-breaking book called While Six Million Died, an earthshaking book about what President Roosevelt and his top aides knew about the genocide that was occurring to the Jews and others, and how they had failed to act upon it. This was a great shock to my political system because Roosevelt was, for our household, an icon. There was a Yiddish joke that the Jewish community believed in three things, and if you know any German, it is very similar: "De Velt," this world; "Yenna Velt," the world to come; and "Roosevelt." So, this was an enormous shock that this icon, this great champion of human rights, would have had this kind of knowledge and not acted on it.
I said to myself, literally at the time, maybe sometime I will have an opportunity, if I am ever in government, somehow to rectify the moral cloud over our country, which had done so much to win the war but so little to help the civilians during the war (and it got little better after the war). After the war, those who survived the Holocaust and had the temerity to go back to try to reclaim their homes, their apartments, their buildings, and their businesses were driven off by the new occupants, or they were actually killed in places like Lithuania and Poland. Others drifted aimlessly into displaced persons camps run by a U.S. military that had been expert at winning the war but had no experience for this new job of handling stateless refugees. If that sounds similar to what we are seeing now in Iraq, I will let you draw that conclusion.
We also had a series of negotiations after the war with the neutrals: Sweden, Turkey, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland, to try to recover assets that they had taken from Germany, in order to pay for these stateless refugees, to help them get resettled. Those negotiations were often fruitless, particularly the ones with Switzerland.
I had a second epiphany some years later in the 1970s, when I met a Catholic-Polish professor at Georgetown University, a remarkable man who just passed away a few years ago, named Jan Karski. Karski was a leader in the free Polish government, in exile in London during the war. I do not know if any of you saw the recent movie The Pianist, but this movie will give you an even greater sense of what Karski went through, because twice he left the relative safety of London and secreted himself through the sewers into the Warsaw ghetto so that he could bear witness to what he saw and try to catalyze Western leaders to do something to stop the civilian slaughter. He told me the story of going to see FDR after the second of his two trips to the Warsaw ghetto, and of being in the Oval Office describing with his own eyes what he had seen. He was an elegant, very believable person, and he said to me that Roosevelt listened quietly and patiently, and then said, "I want you to talk to my confidant, Justice Felix Frankfurter, Justice of the Supreme Court. I look to him for advice, so you repeat the story, and I will do what Frankfurter suggests." So he said he went to see Frankfurter and repeated the story, and the great jurist said, after pausing for a moment, "Mr. Karski, I'm not suggesting you're lying, but I simply choose not to believe what you are telling me." That, in very many ways, was the attitude we had during the war.
When I came into the Carter White House, I brought with me these experiences and recommended to President Carter that he create a permanent memorial for Holocaust victims and a presidential commission headed by Elie Wiesel, who not coincidentally wrote the forward to my book. That led to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. A year later, in 1979 (as we are all now transfixed by Iraq, al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and Islamic fundamentalism) the first radical Islamic revolution occurred. The Ayatollah Khomeini came out of exile in Paris, went back to Tehran, and the Shah abdicated his throne. There were, at that time in Iran, a hundred thousand Christian believers and Jews. This was the oldest, continuous Jewish community in the history of the world. It had dated back to the destruction of the First Temple. And these three religious groups, for good reason, feared for their lives because a radical, Islamic republic had been declared. They started streaming out of Iran to our consulates in Bonn, Vienna, and Rome, desperate to get visas to come to the United States. They were being told by our consular officers, "No room, no visa status, go back to Iran." When this came to my attention in the White House, all sorts of bells and whistles went off. Karski, Arthur Morse, Roosevelt, the St. Louis, (the boat filled with European refugees that was turned back), and I said to myself, "We cannot let this happen twice." I was able to convince President Carter to issue special visa status to over fifty thousand of these refugees, Bahais, Christians, and Jews, so that instead of having to go back to the country you came from in sixty days, which is a normal visitor's visa, they could stay until the Shah was returned to his...