Why Edgar Bronfman took on the Swiss banks
Edgar M. Bronfman is telling hundreds of luncheon guests at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel how he took on the Swiss banking establishment and won. It is less a speech than a corporate war story, narrated as if he had buttonholed his audience at a cocktail party. “We went to see the Swiss bankers in Bern,” Bronfman says of a September, 1995, meeting over Jewish accounts never claimed after the Nazi genocide of the Second World War. ‘We were ushered into a small room with no furniture and left standing. That was enough to irritate me. I don’t treat people that way and I don’t expect to be treated that way,” says the 67-year-old son of Canadian liquor legend Samuel Bronfman. ‘We waited about eight to 10 minutes and then they stormed into the room.’’The Swiss Bankers’ Association, he says in his jocular grumble, had come up with a figure of 775 dormant bank accounts worth $32 million and offered that amount “to buy me off.” No deal. The issue of recovering Jewish assets is not about money, Bronfman tells the Canadian Club audience, his voice now deeply earnest. “It is about justice,” he says. “As long as I draw breath, I will see to it that nobody profits from the ashes of the Holocaust.”
In the 20 months since he was forced to stand in that private Bern club, Edgar Bronfman has used his power and prestige to propel what American author Jane
Kramer calls “white-collar war crimes” to the top of the Western world’s moral agenda. Bronfman’s Swiss hosts had hoped the New York City-based chairman of the multibillion-dollar Seagram empire was a bottomline man who would settle for a sum and quietly go away. Instead, the headline-grabbing president of the World Jewish Congress wanted facts about Switzerland’s longburied past—and wanted them independently verified. Swiss banks, it was becoming clear, had knowingly traded in gold plundered across Europe by the Nazis, and they had stonewalled attempts by survivors of Holocaust victims to regain family assets.
After months of intense pressure orchestrated by Bronfman, the Swiss government finally announced plans in March for a $6.4billion fund for victims of the Nazis and other human rights violators; Bronfman now sits on the fund’s board. Swiss banks and industry have donated another $270 million to a separate fund for Holocaust survivors. In the process, Bronfman has incurred the wrath of many Swiss—and criticism of his tactics from some in his own community. “Edgar Bronfman is the most powerful Jew in the world,” says Abraham Foxman, national director of the U.S. Anti-Defamation
League and one who has tried to smooth relations with the Swiss ¡n Bronfman.s wake. That status, Foxman adds, “fulfils the fantasy of every Jew—and every anti-Semite.”
It also makes things happen. The scandal has rolled across the world, from Bulgaria to Sweden to Argentina. Bronfman’s determined associates—WJC secretary general Israel Singer and executive director Elan Steinberg, both American—have a list of 24 countries that have given fuzzy answers about what happened to the assets of exiled or murdered Jews. Even Washington has come under fire for failing to force Switzerland to turn over more gold after the War, when Allied intelligence knew where the trove originated—including some bullion plucked from the teeth of death camp corpses. U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat, who recently released a blistering 11-agency report on gold and other assets stolen by the Nazis, thanked Bronfman for forcing a human rights issue onto “the conscience of the world and of countries who would never have opened up this dark chapter in their histories.”
But a desire for historical justice is not all that is driving Bronfman. He has recently rediscovered his religious roots. Newly emerged from decades as a lapsed Jew, Bronfman is on a self-appointed mission to bring about a North American Jewish renaissance in the next century. We need a spiritual rebirth,” he says. “The ultimate problem in Judaism is not what happened 50 years ago, but what we are doing to ourselves, which is assimilating and opting out of our Judaism. It is a silent Holocaust.”
It was 50 years ago that patriarch Samuel Bronfman, as head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, urged Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to accept into Canada Jewish refugees who were still languishing in European displaced persons camps 18 months after the war ended. In 1947, the elder Bronfman and colleagues failed—although the government did admit 1,000 destitute Jewish war orphans. Charles Bronfman, two years younger than Edgar and Seagram’s co-chairman, recalls their father’s trips from Montreal to Ottawa: “He’d come back thinking he’d really accomplished something. It’s amazing in today’s world to think how powerless they were. They were nothing.”
Like his father, who became known as Mr. Sam, Edgar has wealth and access and the gumption to use both in the service of a cause. But today, Edgar Bronfman tends to get what he wants. In the United States, Seagram’s and members of the Bronfman family gave $1.6 million to the Democratic party before the last election—more than any other donor— and at least $900,000 to Republicans, not least because Bronfman likes to be able to schmooze at the highest level. President Bill Clinton, for instance, used a WJC bash honoring Bronfman at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1995 to announce sanctions against Iran, an enemy of Israel.
That kind of clout is why the WJC’s Singer and Steinberg set their sights on Bronfman nearly two decades ago to resuscitate their flagging organization. Bronfman became WJC president in 1981, and has since rescued both its image and its bank accounts. In the mid-1980s, he led the drive to expose Austrian UN secretary general Kurt Waldheim’s past as a Nazi intelligence officer, and more recently interceded with Pope John Paul II to move a Carmelite convent off the grounds of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. His dealings with leaders of the old Soviet Union helped gain the emigration of hundreds of Jews. Now the WJC has a lock on the Nazi gold issue, one that Jewish groups had been tiptoeing around for decades. “If you ask why it took 50 years, it’s because there is an Edgar Bronfman now,” says Steinberg deferentially. But it is also because the WJC tapped into a widespread sense that, with the Cold War over and with half a century of distance, it was time to explore the Nazi period anew.
The Seagram Building in Manhattan is a 1958 Mies van der Rohe landmark that set the modernist tone for today’s Park Avenue. On the fifth floor, two security guards share a reception hall with enormous paintings by American artists Mark Rothko and Larry Rivers, as well as two Joan Miró tapestries. Beyond them, Bronfman occupies his father’s former office, while his brother Charles is across the hall and his son, current Seagram president and CEO Edgar Jr., works elsewhere on the floor. Mr. Edgar, as the guards sometimes refer to the chairman of the board, has just sat down under a 1939 portrait of Mr. Sam, his lumbering frame angled forward as he prepares to discuss how this all came about. In the middle of the guest table is a jewelled shofar, a ritual ram’s horn that was left by Samuel Bronfman when he
died in 1971. Near the window is a portable Torah scroll of the type that Jewish leaders and kings take into battle. It was a 60th birthday gift from the WJC’s Singer, Bronfman’s spiritual mentor.
Bronfman speaks in a cluttered, stream of consciousness monologue—feisty, unsentimental, at times gossipy. He chortles at his own jokes, which come regularly, and he does not avoid swearing. But he is as candid as he is gruff. In his low rasp, he recounts how in 1992, as head of the WJC’s newly formed World Jewish Restitution Organization, he entered tricky negotiations with post-Soviet era Eastern European governments for the return of Jewish property stolen first by the Nazis and then by the communists. Then, in 1994, two things happened to turn the WJC’s attention to Western Europe as well. Singer read The Swiss Account, a Paul Erdman mystery that linked Swiss bankers to the Nazis, and a young researcher from Norway started to probe the fate of that country’s 1,600 Jews—800 of whom never came back.
Their property, it turns out, was auctioned off at bargain basement prices by a new postwar democratic government— “obviously not a just way of dealing with the situation,” says Bronfman. He began to wonder about other countries. ‘There were 130,000 Dutch Jews sent to concentration camps,” he says. “Most were killed. In Belgium about 60,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz. What happened to Jewish property after these people were all killed?”
Such thoughts and the well-researched proddings of Singer and Steinberg led to the September, 1995, watershed in Bern. “It occurred to me—thinking very quickly, actually on no sleep—that if they are offering $32 million, there’s got to be an awful lot more,” says Bronfman of the Swiss bankers’ proposal. “Why would they offer anything at all, if there really wasn’t anything there?” The Swiss, after all, had in 1962 tried to close the issue with a payout to survivors of $6.4 million, and then in 1972 quietly settled a group of subsequent claims. Now, the heirs of the so-called heirless accounts Bronfman has rediscovered his religious roots
were coming forward demanding amounts that with interest totalled at least $9.5 billion.
Returning home, Bronfman had lunch with Senate banking committee chairman Alfonse D’Amato, a New York Republican with the largest number of Jewish constituents in the United States, who quickly dispatched his committee researchers to join those of the WJC at Washington’s National Archives. They began unearthing the bombshells that formed the basis of sensational bank committee hearings D’Amato held last spring. At about the same time, Bronfman used a Democratic fund-raiser at his own apartment to get the ear of Hillary Clinton, who arranged 30 minutes with the President the next day. “If it comes to it, I will work with Senator D’Amato on legislation,” Clinton told Bronfman, who loves to boast of having gotten the odd couple of American politics to work together.
In Switzerland, the moral accounting forced a re-evaluation of the country’s very identity, long based on neutrality. But there was also a backlash. The country’s tiny Jewish community was targeted by a wave of hate mail. Ordinary Swiss were angry, feeling attacked. By last winter, there was still no resolution.
Finally, in January, when a security guard at Zurich’s Union Bank discovered stacks of wartime ledgers beside a basement paper shredder, the denials ceased. Outgoing Swiss president Jean-Pascal Delamuraz apologized for calling Bronfman’s request for a $340-million interim fund “extortion and blackmail.” In March, when Bronfman’s WJC spoke of a worldwide boycott and D’Amato threatened that Swiss bank privileges in New York could be revoked, new Swiss President Arthur Koller announced the $6.4-billion “solidarity foundation” for victims of Nazism and other humanitarian catastrophes, to be paid for by selling off gold reserves. The Swiss had caved.
All the while, Bronfman, under the tutelage of the religiously observant Singer, was evolving into a committed traditional Jew. He enjoys going to Jewish studies classes at New York University’s Edgar Bronfman Center. He says that in his three marriages he greatly regrets not having given his seven children a stronger Jewish education— only one son had a bar mitzvah. His latest project is to act as a role model for young
American Jews by speaking on campuses. ‘You have to make it cool to young people to want to be Jewish,” says Bronfman. “That’s not easy.” The same message—although in a less religious form—has been echoed by high-profile American lawyer Alan Dershowitz, whose latest book, The Vanishing American Jew, warns that by the third quarter of the next century there could be almost no Jews left in America. Bronfman wants to fight that trend. “I feel a calling to do this,” he says. “People want something spiritual, something that brings meaning to their lives.”
Brother Charles shares the concern. A longtime supporter of Canadian Jewish causes and a major investor in Israel, he began to attend Jewish study groups about six years ago, although not as avidly as Edgar. But the Bronfman brothers—unlike the Reichmanns, one of Canada’s major real estate families—are still non-observant Jews and do not close Seagram on Jewish holidays.
Seagram is big business, operating in 40 countries and employing 30,000 people. The beverage side alone owns the brands Crown Royal, Seagram’s V.O., Chivas Regal, Martell cognac, The Glenlivet, Mumm champagne, Captain Morgan Rum—and Tropicana orange juice. After spending $7.7 billion in 1995 to buy Hollywood’s MCA/Universal conglomerate, now Universal Studios, Inc., Seagram became a $29-billion concern—with the Bronfman family stake at 35.8 per cent. The MCA deal was Edgar Jr.’s, reflecting the 42-yearold CEO’s interest in the media and entertainment world; last week, Seagram sold just over half its 11.2-per-cent interest in media giant Time Warner Inc. for $1.9 billion. But the MCA deal’s financing— through the sale of Seagram’s 25-per-cent share in chemical giant Du Pont—also reflected chairman Edgar Sr.’s anger over a Du Pont subsidiary’s $ 1-billion oil deal with Iran. Clinton’s sanctions scuttled that.
On his office wall, Edgar Jr., the third Bronfman CEO this century, has a famous photograph of his grandfather playing solitaire. Underneath is Mr. Sam’s favorite quote about the dangers of dynasties: “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” Edgar Jr. has said he looks at the wall every day. “It ain’t going to be shirtsleeves in this generation,” he vows.
Born into a large house in exclusive Westmount, the two boys among the four Bronfman children saw more of the servants than they did their busy father. “Growing up in Montreal as Sam Bronfman’s older son was not, I thought, terrific,” says Edgar. What he Edgar was the extrovert; Charles turned inward
most remembers, he adds dispassionately, is a coldness, despite the emphasis on Jewish family values. Liberal Senator Leo Kolber, a good friend of Charles, recalls how formal life was at 15 Belvedere Road. ‘Where I came from, being at the Bronfman’s house was like being at Buckingham Palace,” says Kolber. “The butler wore a morning suit or a tux and tails. When I first went to dinner there I didn’t have a clue what to do. I’d never seen three knives and three forks and spoons before.”
In a 1996 documentary on Mr. Sam, who was fond of reminding his sons that “blood counts,” Edgar Bronfman chokes back tears describing how he never heard his father say “I love you.” The boys admired their father, but they also feared him. Edgar’s response was something bordering on rebellion. “He was a devil-may-care guy, his own man,” says Kolber. “He loved to tell jokes and have a good time.” Edgar was the extrovert, while Charles turned inward. “Growing up in a mansion, the son of a legend, there could be a bit of paranoia that set in,” says Kolber. “Maybe your friends didn’t like you for who you are but were interested in your money. There was a bit of defensiveness.”
There was also confusion about Jewish identity at a time when overt antiSemitism was still common in Canada.
Mr. Sam, dogged by his poor Jewish roots and his business dealings with U.S. rumrunners in the Prohibition era of the 1920s, always wanted to be accepted by the Canadian Establishment. A traditional Jew, at the same time he played “United Empire Loyalist,” laughs Edgar. Sam sent his boys to the Protestant upper crust’s Selwyn House School in Montreal. Then,
Edgar also remembers being one of the few Jewish boys to attend Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ont., where he and the headmaster negotiated intensely over how often he had to go to chapel.
Edgar calls his bar mitzvah at age 13 the spiritual high point of his life.
But a few years later, when he realized his father did not understand the Hebrew they were mouthing in synagogue, Edgar stopped going. “The thing that always irritated me was hearing two guys behind me talking about a real estate deal,” he says of a New York synagogue he attended briefly years afterwards. Bronfman, who loves Manhattan, became an American citizen in 1959. Now, with his mother gone, he says he spends “as little time as possible” in Canada, coming mainly for board meetings of the company, still headquartered in Montreal. Charles, on the other hand, proudly displays his Order of Canada pin, and has lived mainly in Montreal. He now spends more time in Palm Beach, Fla., New York and Jerusalem as well. Their older sister, Phyllis Lambert, lives in Toronto, while sister Minda, the eldest, died in 1985.
Unlike their father and his three brothers, the second-generation Bronfman boys have always been friends. “Whenever anything was of any importance we would always band together,” Charles says, adding that he accepted his role as number 2 at Seagram not with resentment but with relief. “I was happier being a bigger fish in a smaller pond [in Montreal],” Charles explains. ‘We want to cheer for the other guy, not compete.” The two sit down together from time to time to sort out which Jewish causes they will support with time and
money. For Edgar, the priorities are education and restitution. “I was asked whether I lost any family in the Holocaust,” he says. “I said, ‘Not in the way you mean. The whole Jewish people is my family. I lost six million.’ That’s the way I feel.”
Often the most biting criticism comes from within one’s “family”. It is the Jewish world that has most cuttingly questioned Edgar Bronfman’s aims, his brash, unrelenting approach, or his basic wisdom. An opinion piece in Israel’s Jerusalem Post newspaper accused Bronfman’s WJC of suffering from “premature articulation” for exposing damning documents before their contents could be verified, and for threatening boycotts in order to speed up results. Famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal is angry that the WJC’s gold drive is diverting the focus from the search for war criminals. It is partly internecine politics, but there is also a genuine discomfort among many Jews in Europe and America over Bronfman’s tactics
during the past year.
Bronfman is unrepentant. “If the Swiss government looks upon me like a great big dog that’s liable to jump up on them, then that’s fine,” he says. “I remember when their foreign minister was here. He was actually nervous. He thought that I had horns. He was absolutely shocked to find that I was a perfectly normal, civilized, polite human being.” And he dismisses assertions that he has stepped on the toes of the small but reviving Jewish communities of Europe. “I would love for the European Jewish communities to be more involved,” he says. “But frankly, they don’t have the kind of power that is necessary to shake things up.” He has wrestled with the « accusation that his activities have pro| duced a backlash of anti-Semitism for Swiss Jews and those in other Eurog pean communities. But he believes I the principles of justice and Jewish
0 pride are more important. “I have g come to the conclusion that Jews don’t g make anti-Semitism—anti-Semites
1 do,” he says.
5 New York-based writer J. J. Goldberg, author of Jewish Power: Inside the Jewish American Establishment was among those who initially felt that Bronfman and D’Amato were pushing too hard. But he has changed his mind now that the WJC has produced results. “A lot of the resentment towards Edgar is that he and his staff are so effective,” Goldberg says.
Bronfman does not disagree. “Any day of the week, I’d rather be respected than liked,” he says, before gathering himself up and heading out of his office. He must call Israel Singer to find out the results of yet another meeting on Nazi gold. Although the first battle was won, the war is still on. Swiss banks have identified only $39,000 in unclaimed Jewish deposits so far. And the Swiss electorate must still hold a plebiscite on the solidarity fund. Bidding farewell to colleague Steinberg, Bronfman fumbles over a Hebrew phrase, hoping to wish his friend a “nice vacation” in a language he has been able to read since primary school but is only now learning to understand via a computer program. As soon as he has built up enough vocabulary, Edgar M. Bronfman, Jewish world leader, intends to hire a Hebrew tutor. □