Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and advisor to WJC presidents Edgar Bronfman and Ronald S. Lauder, died of cancer on Friday, at the age of 59.
Steinberg served a central role in exposing the crimes of former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, officer of the German Wehrmacht during World War II, and helped organize the research, hearings and lawsuit that led Swiss banks, as well as the German government, to pay over $1 billion in compensation to Holocaust survivors in the late 1990s.
The WJC was the first organization to warn the world of the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution,’ and continues to serve an essential role in fighting for Jewish justice. In the 1950s, WJC President Nahum Goldmann led the negotiations regarding reparations for Holocaust survivors, which are still being paid, to this day, in the form of pensions.
“One of the great Jewish activists of the past decade left us today,” said Lauder in a statement posted on the organization’s website. “Elan’s premature death will leave a huge void in the Jewish world. He was deeply committed to advocating the rights of the Jews around the world, and of Holocaust survivors in particular. He was probably the most gifted communication professional in the Jewish organizational world. He will be sorely missed.”
“Whenever Jews were in danger, or Jewish honor offended, he vigorously yet elegantly spoke up, said Elie Wiessel in a statement read at Mr. Steinberg’s funeral. “Whenever Jewish memory was attacked, he attacked the attacker.”
Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League told The New York Times that he applauded the congress’s “persistence,” but worried that the Swiss might begin to see Jews as “their enemy.” He said the congress’s crusade “fed into the stereotype that Jews have money, that it’s the most important thing to them.”
However, as Steinberg had once noted, “For a long time, the World Jewish Congress was meant to be the greatest secret of Jewish life, because the nature of diplomacy after the was quiet diplomacy. This is a newer, American-style leadership- less timid, more forceful, unashamedly Jewish."
“Without Elan’s skills, his tireless work and his absolute determination, all of this could probably not have been achieved,” Lauder asserted. “Not just the survivors, but the entire Jewish people owe his a debt of gratitude.”