Stuart Eizenstat sees it as “life coming full circle.”
Last week the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington bestowed upon him its highest honor, the Elie Wiesel Award. It’s “extremely meaningful” to Eizenstat, not just because it’s named after a man he greatly admires, but also because it came from an institution Eizenstat had a hand in creating.
Eizenstat, 78, is a career diplomat and longtime Washington resident. He was U.S. undersecretary of commerce, undersecretary of state, deputy secretary of the treasury and ambassador to the European Union. He’s also an expert on Holocaust issues and has helped negotiate numerous Holocaust survivor compensation agreements with many European countries, banks, corporations and insurance companies. During the Carter administration, he helped create the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, which established the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Eizenstat was one of two recipients of the 2021 Elie Wiesel Award, which honors those who “embody the museum’s vision of a world where people confront hate, prevent genocide and promote human dignity,” according to a press release. The award is named after Wiesel, the famous Holocaust survivor and author of “Night.” Wiesel was also the founding chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Each award is engraved with words from Wiesel’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “One person of integrity can make a difference.”
“To be recognized with something that has Elie’s name attached to it is really one of the high points in my life,” Eizenstat said. “I’ve got eight or nine honorary Ph.D.s and probably a 100 awards. Of all of these, this is the most meaningful.”
The award was presented to Eizenstat at the museum’s National Tribute Virtual Event on April 22.
The other award recipient was the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations, which was responsible for investigating people in the U.S. suspected of involvement in Nazi war crimes. Former OSI director and legendary Nazi hunter Eli Rosenbaum accepted the award on the organization’s behalf.
“While true justice for the victims of the Holocaust is not possible, Stuart Eizenstat and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations have each worked tirelessly in different ways to secure a measure of justice for the survivors and accountability for the perpetrators,” said Museum Chairman Howard Lorber. “We are honored to recognize their achievements and decades-long dedication to these noble pursuits.”
Eizenstat’s passion for Holocaust restitution and remembrance dates back to early in his career. At 25, he read a book that changed his life: “While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy.” The book criticizes the Roosevelt administration for failing to act when opportunities arose to save substantial numbers of Jews from being murdered in the Holocaust.
“It was a shock to me,” Eizenstat said of the book. “And I literally said to myself if I’m ever in a position in the U.S. government where I could do anything about this, to remove a cloud from the history of the U.S., I want to do it.”
And that opportunity came when Eizenstat became President Jimmy Carter’s Chief White House domestic policy adviser. In that position he helped to “bring the Holocaust back on the world agenda after 15 years in which it was basically ignored.” In 1978, Eizenstat urged the president to create a national Holocaust memorial, an idea originally pitched to him by other White House staffers.
Carter formed a commission to explore the idea, and Eizenstat recommended Wiesel serve as its chairman. The commission proposed the creation of a museum to remember the Holocaust. The museum was built and opened to the public in 1993. Eizenstat said the museum has done much to further Holocaust remembrance and understanding.
“No one would have imagined, I certainly didn’t, that [the museum] would have had this kind of dramatic impact. And that’s why [the award] to me, it’s so meaningful,” Eizenstat said. “It ties me to Elie. It ties me back to the whole vision that he had of what the museum should stand for. And it ties back to the work I’ve been doing for the last 40 years.”
Correction, May 19: The story originally stated Elie Wiesel was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s founding chairman. He was the founding chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and the article has been updated accordingly.