When U.S. District Judge Shirley Wohl Kram gave the green light on Wednesday, July 25 for Austria to start paying out $450 million to World War II forced and slave laborers, she had special words of praise for Walter Zifkin.
Zifkin, said the New York judge, had truly served the victims of the Nazi-era crimes and had represented the highest standards of his profession.
The recipient of these compliments is neither a practicing lawyer nor a public official. Zifkin is the CEO of the William Morris talent and literary agency, which represents hundreds of stage and screen celebrities.
Perhaps figuring that a man who has spent decades mediating between stars and producers had the right qualifications for the job, Kram named Zifkin "special master" in the case.
In that assignment, "I tried to resolve differences between the parties," Zifkin told The Journal, among them numerous lawyers, survivor groups and the U.S. Justice Department.
The $450-million fund has been in place for some time. But the Austrian government held up payment until two lawsuits filed by former forced laborers were dismissed, which is exactly what Kram did.
During the hearings, Zifkin made a plea for a speedy resolution of the issue. "The survivors are in need, they are elderly, and they are dying daily," he said. "There is no adequate restitution for the horror that was revealed in these cases. More than 55 years after the end of World War II, it will mean ... some measure of compensation and justice can be brought to these individuals."
"Nothing I have ever done compares to the feeling of accomplishment in helping to get payments to these elderly survivors, it is an indescribable emotional experience," Zifkin said in a phone interview.
He added, "being Jewish, I have some special feelings of compassion about the Holocaust, which, I think, would be shared by any human being." Zifkin is active on the boards of Cedar-Sinai Medical Center and Vista del Mar.
The $450 million will go to some 170,000 men and women who were forced to work on Austrian soil during World War II. Most of them are Poles, Czechs and Ukrainians.
Few Jews are included in this category, since most Jewish slave laborers have previously received restitution from Germany, according to Zifkin.
Austrian Consul-General Peter Launsky-Tiefenthal hailed the closing of the case. "Austria recognizes that it contributed to the suffering of many during the Nazi era," he said. "We all agree that it has taken too long to get compensation to the victims, but we are now trying to act in a swift and nonbureaucratic way."
While the case closes one chapter on the lengthy restitution negotiations with Austria, two others stay open and unresolved.
One is a $350-million fund to compensate former Austrian Jews whose businesses were "Aryanized," property confiscated and insurance policies not honored. However, none of this money is being disbursed while lawsuits filed by survivors are pending in the courts.
Linked to the $350-million fund is an additional $112 million, earmarked for social benefits, including health care.
(Three months ago, a separate Austrian parliamentary fund started paying $7,000 to each survivor whose assets were seized when Austria was annexed by Hitler's Germany in 1938.)
A third aspect, and a particularly complicated one, is the return of art looted from Austrian Jews and now in Austrians museums or in private hands.
While about a thousand works of art have been returned to their original owners, Launsky-Tiefenthal said, one high-profile case remains and is wending through the courts.
The case involves six paintings by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, including two 1907 portraits of the aristocratic Jewish beauty Adele Bloch-Bauer.
Bloch-Bauer's niece and sole surviving relative is Maria Altman of Los Angeles, who estimates the value of the six Klimt paintings at $150 million and is suing for their recovery in federal court, according to her attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg.
The Austrian government maintains that Bloch-Bauer willed the paintings to the Austrian Gallery in Vienna, where they now hang.
On another front, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) introduced the Holocaust Victims Insurance Relief Act in Congress last week.
The bill would require all European insurance companies operating in the United States to disclose the names of Holocaust-era life insurance policies.
Although a special international commission was named in 1998 to expedite the processing of such claims, some 84 percent of the claim applications filed remain unresolved,
"The process is skewed against survivors," said Waxman. "It is outrageous that the [insurance] companies can exploit the [international commission's] rules to avoid their responsibility."