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Clinton administration working to the end on Holocaust reckoning

A remarkable international campaign to compensate victims of the Holocaust 50 years after the fact proves “there’s no statute of limitations on human rights violations,” says the lead U.S. envoy in the effort.

Clinton administration officials are working to the last minute this week on the half-decade campaign that has won billions of dollars for the aging survivors of Nazi brutality.

Though it is far from finished, the re-examination of history and recalculation of what’s owed victims has altered the story of how the world dealt with one of the darkest chapters of the 20th Century.

“It proved there’s no statute of limitations on the violation of human rights,” said Stuart Eizenstat, the Clinton administration’s point man on Holocaust issues.

“It provided a lesson … on what happens when the rule of law breaks down and when good people and good countries sit on the sidelines and let … injustices occur,” he said.

History still will show Adolf Hitler’s forces in the 1930s and ’40s slaughtered 6 million Jews and 5 million others, enslaved 12 million and plundered Europe.

An addendum written in the last few years also will show private organizations and governments worked in the late 1990s to, as Eizenstat says, “bring some measure of justice to a million victims.”

Nations searched their archives, some searched their souls — 20 set up Holocaust commissions — in an extraordinary re-examination of what happened during the Third Reich and what was still owed to its victims.

There’s plenty left to be done. A U.S. commission reports Tuesday to President Clinton on inadequacies in the American government’s handling of looted gold, art, and other assets that came under its control after the war. It will include recommendations for further work.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Eizenstat hopes to finish negotiating an Austrian payment for stolen Jewish property.

On Thursday, he’ll try to complete a French plan to compensate families whose bank accounts were confiscated during the collaborationist Vichy regime.

“We’re in sort of an emergency mode … to conclude these last two negotiations under the wire,” Eizenstat said of the French and Austrian proposals.

Eizenstat steps down Saturday with the Clinton administration upon the inauguration of President-elect Bush. He has urged Colin Powell, the nominee for secretary of state nominee, to continue the State Department’s Holocaust office and push implementation of programs negotiated over the last few years but not yet paying money that was pledged.

The Bush transition team had no immediate comment on how it will handle the issue.

Eizenstat believes the exercise is unprecedented.

“The most important accomplishment was that it happened at all after the events had receded into the mist of history,” he said.

The United States took a lead in the effort as did the World Jewish Congress and the Conference for Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. U.S. lawyers assembled class action suits on behalf of survivors.

The new round of scrutiny and demand for payments was made possible partly by the end of the Cold War and release of long-secret documents. Renewed interest in World War II, growing attention to human rights and a host of other factors combined with long-silent victims finally talking about what they endured. Others made renewed demands to a world perhaps more ready to listen, advocates say.

The campaign was unwelcome in many quarters. Settlements were made in return for legal peace — the U.S. government promised to discourage its courts from entertaining future lawsuits.

The first big fight was the 1996 claim against Swiss banks, which eventually agreed to a $1.25 billion settlement.

The case tarnished Switzerland’s reputation as a neutral wartime country that had helped save Jews, adding revelations that its banks profited from the Holocaust by keeping assets of slain Jews, acting as Hitler’s banker and trafficking in plundered gold.

“It was like throwing a pebble into the pond and having the ripples go out,” said Greg Bradsher, the National Archives’ lead historian on Holocaust-era issues. “People researching Swiss banks were the ones who stumbled on things about Ford and slave labor” — bolstering a lawsuit against Ford Motor Co.’s wartime German subsidiary and others that used concentration camp labor for little or no pay.

Eventually, Germany and Austria and their corporations agreed to compensate forced laborers and European insurance companies agreed to address dormant policies of those who died in the Holocaust. Though Austria and Germany had paid other postwar compensation, it was judged to be insufficient or to have left out certain categories of victims.

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