The U.S. diplomat seeking justice for Holocaust survivors

Ellen Germain, the U.S. special envoy for Holocaust issues, says the work is more important than ever as Holocaust survivors age

Like many American Jews, Ellen Germain grew up hearing about family members who perished in the Holocaust. When her great-grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Poland in 1904, he left behind his two brothers and their families. Everyone who remained in Europe was killed by the Nazis.

Germain took an interest in her family history, eventually digging into genealogy research to learn more about the relatives who were slaughtered simply for being Jewish in their home country. Later, as a U.S. diplomat, Germain would spend three years in Krakow, Poland, where she learned the language of her uncles and cousins — and some of their killers. 

“Those brothers, Shlomke and Joske Gutferd, lived in Radzilow and Szczuczyn, in northeast Poland, and I want to say their names because I feel like no one else remembers them anymore,” said Germain.

Germain’s mother was a child during World War II. She once told Germain her memory of coming home from school one day to find her own mother and aunts and uncles huddled around the kitchen table, crying. One of her relatives in Poland, a promising yeshiva student, had been gunned down in the street by Nazis.

“They’d gotten a letter from relatives in Poland telling them he was shot,” Germain recalled. “So when I talk about the importance of accurate Holocaust commemoration and education, it’s something I really care about.”

After more than 25 years as a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Germain’s latest posting in some ways feels like the job she was always meant to do. Since 2021, she has served as the U.S. special envoy for Holocaust issues. She leads a State Department team that aims to return Holocaust-era assets to survivors and help them receive compensation for evils perpetrated against them by Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. She also promotes Holocaust education and remembrance around the world.

“Doing this job as special envoy for Holocaust issues feels very personal to me because it feels like I’m doing something to remember them,” she said of Shlomke and Joske, “and all the other victims whose names no one knows.”

Nearly eight decades after the Holocaust, the number of survivors of Nazi atrocities dwindles each year — and many die before receiving restitution that they’ve sought for decades. Of the 275,000 Holocaust survivors alive today, more than one-third live in poverty, advocates say. 

Ellen Germain visiting the Massuah Institute for the Study of the Holocaust at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak, Israel, in Febuary 2022 (Courtesy)

“We like to say our mission is seeking a measure of justice for Holocaust survivors and their heirs,” Germain, who is 60, told Jewish Insider in a Zoom interview last week ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls on Friday.

Germain often hears from people who are surprised to learn that her position even exists, thinking that the issues she works on might instead fit under the purview of Deborah Lipstadt, the higher-profile special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. But Lipstadt is a political appointee. 

Her first real international experience was as a teenager, when she spent a summer in Israel with Camp Ramah. And while Germain always had an interest in traveling the world, the Foreign Service “is a third or fourth career for me,” she noted. She dropped out of two Ph.D. programs, one in medieval English literature and the other in computer science, and worked as a computer programmer and a science journalist. She signed up for the Foreign Service exam on something of a lark after a friend told her he planned to take it. 

Germain’s first posting was in Tel Aviv, and over the years she spent a significant portion of her time on Middle East issues, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio. But she also focused at times on post-Soviet Eastern Europe, Iraq and the United Nations. The job “is really good for someone like me with a short attention span, because every one to three years you’re moving around and doing something different,” she noted.

Her favorite posting was in Moscow, where she focused on science and technology, including space; a perk was attending rocket launches. But diplomacy is more of an art than a science — for Germain, it’s knowing when and how to pressure an ally, or how to get the issues she handles on the desks of her more senior colleagues in the vast bureaucracy of the State Department. 

“I’m not sitting in the office. I don’t know who she calls to get something done internally. But I do know that things happen,” said Mark Weitzman, chief operating officer at the World Jewish Restitution Organization, an NGO that represents Jews outside of Germany and Austria pursuing claims for the recovery of Jewish property. “It would not be a significant part of U.S. policy if there was not advocacy from within the department.”

Germain’s work might seem morally clear-cut, but diplomatically, the issue is fraught. Diplomatic skills are crucial; the U.S. must have uncomfortable conversations with European allies to urge them to follow through on what Washington sees as the deeply important task of supporting elderly and ailing Holocaust survivors and their families. 

“What I deal with is working with governments, generally European governments, to encourage them to set up processes or pass laws so that individuals can file claims for restitution or compensation,” Germain explained. 

Washington has for decades been involved in negotiating restitution agreements with nations across Europe. The office of the special envoy for Holocaust issues was created in 1999 at the request of Stuart Eizenstat, the former U.S. ambassador to the European Union and an expert in restitution issues, having negotiated restitution agreements with several European nations. Eizenstat now serves as a special advisor on Holocaust issues to Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

“I don’t think there would be any success in resolving any of these issues without U.S. government support and their initiatives on it. This has been a bipartisan effort,” Weitzman said. 

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, better known as the Claims Conference, was set up in 1951 to secure German reparations, and laid the groundwork for restitution programs that would later be adopted across Europe. 

But countries in Central and Eastern Europe generally did not do so until the 1990s or later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when they began to confront their Nazi-era pasts for the first time. Still, some of those nations even today shy away from reckoning with the role their former leaders or military heroes may have played in the Holocaust. The result is that those countries — Poland being the most significant example — also are slow to recognize the importance of restitution. 

“It’s been 30 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, so those are countries that are often still constructing their historical narratives,” Germain explained. 

“You’ve got, often, historical figures who are considered heroes because they fought the Soviets after World War II. But they also collaborated with the Nazis and were complicit in the crimes of the Holocaust,” she added. “When you have glorification of those kinds of figures, whether it’s in statues, plaques, streets named after them, sports stadiums named after them, that’s not the full story, and generally we encourage countries to, you know, not glorify Nazi war criminals.”

A 2020 report from the State Department issued a troubling assessment of the state of Holocaust restitution. “Bureaucratic inertia has delayed the resolution of too many restitution claims,” the report found. Claims are often not considered in a timely manner, if they even make it to the correct agency. In some countries, the regulations are so stringent that they make it nearly impossible for survivors who no longer live in the country of their birth to receive any restitution. (The vast majority of Holocaust survivors now live in Israel or the U.S.) 

In November, Germain and diplomats from 46 other nations gathered in the Czech Republic to take stock of the state of restitution. In 2009, those countries signed on to the Terezin Declaration, which was a groundbreaking statement of support for helping Holocaust survivors receive restitution and compensation. 

“Among the immeasurable horrors the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews was their systematic dispossession,” Blinken said in a video address to the November gathering. “The dispossession was part of the stripping away of a person’s humanity – of turning an individual into a number. But it was also part of a mass theft, one just as rigorously orchestrated as the mass extermination.” 

Blinken shared the story of his stepfather, Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor who at first viewed West Germany’s offers of compensation as an affront. It was, he felt, too little and too late when so many had been killed. “And yet, he ultimately decided to file a claim, which was awarded. He never touched the small payment, but later said, ‘It is all I ever got in exchange for my father, my mother and my sister. As such, it is sacred to me,’” Blinken recalled. “For communities, it can affirm that the unspeakable horrors they endured were real, and that those who were complicit or silent were wrong.”

Poland, which had the largest Jewish community before the Holocaust, still has no formal restitution policy. Israel recalled its ambassador to Warsaw in 2021 after Poland passed a law effectively shutting down any avenue to restitution for heirs to the property that belonged to people killed by Nazis in Poland. In 2018, Poland faced a global outcry after considering legislation that would make it illegal to blame Poland for complicity in the Holocaust. 

“Germany is responsible for the Holocaust. But in Poland, as in pretty much every other country, there were collaborators, and there were individual Poles, and sometimes many people in the community who either helped the Nazis,” Germain explained, or there were instances “where it does seem that it was the Polish neighbors who killed their Jewish neighbors. Poland has gone back and forth on being able to face up to that.”

The result has been many difficult conversations with Polish officials. But as a diplomat, Germain knows that Washington’s relationship with Warsaw encompasses much more than just the restitution issue — especially in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that began nearly a year ago. Poland has emerged as a critical NATO ally and a welcoming home to many Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion.

“As always, in diplomatic conversations, none of it is done in a vacuum. We’re always cognizant of the current global situation or the current regional situation. But on these issues, we’ve been very consistent in raising them. Because they’re fundamental,” added Germain. 

It helps that Germain was head of the U.S. Consulate General in Krakow for three years, during which she learned Polish and often spoke about these same Holocaust issues. Most recently, she served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

“When you start talking about atrocity prevention and what we can learn from the Holocaust, that has a global reach. And I saw that very clearly when I was in Bosnia and visited Srebrenica,” Germain said, referring to the site of a 1995 massacre of more than 8,000 Muslims by the Serbs. The Serbs’ campaign has widely been described as a genocide. When looking at photos of the massacre, Germain was struck by their similarity to the infamous and horrific images from the Holocaust. 

“All of those things bring home to me how important it is to maintain the accurate memory of the Holocaust, both because it was such a horrific and unique tragedy in and of itself, but also so that we can, I really do believe — it sounds a bit Pollyannaish — but so that we can try to learn from it, and maybe try to do better in the future, do better at preventing such things,” said Germain. “It’s both learning from it, but also it’s important to remember and teach about the Holocaust in and of itself, because it’s sadly a defining moment in history, where an entire culture and almost an entire people in Europe were wiped out.”

Ellen Germain speaks alongside U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania Robert Gilchrist on Dec. 5, 2022. (Credit: Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Germain is the U.S. representative to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, whose working definition of antisemitism has been embraced by governments around the world as a tool for teaching about and identifying antisemitism. The IHRA definition has also faced some pushback from the left due to its assertion that criticism of Israel can veer into antisemitism. 

“It’s a very good way of saying, ‘Here are guidelines. Here is how you can recognize antisemitism when you see it, and here are some examples,’” Germain said. The IHRA definition was finalized in 2016 and embraced by former President Donald Trump. Early in his term, President Joe Biden affirmed his administration’s support for it.

Germain acknowledged that sometimes it can be hard for people to differentiate between legitimate criticism of Israel, “like the criticism that one would make of any country,” and “criticism that veers into the antisemitic.” 

“The Holocaust, Israel, antisemitism — somehow they are linked up in a variety of ways, and sometimes are linked up in ways that are clearly, horrifyingly, antisemitic. And the IHRA definition is meant to help the world understand what antisemitism is,” she said. One of IHRA’s examples of antisemitism is “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” 

Antisemitism is on the rise in the U.S. and Europe, and with that comes an increase in Holocaust denial and distortion. But it isn’t all bad news, Germain insists. This month, the United Arab Emirates pledged to teach about the Holocaust in its schools for the first time. 

“It’s really a great announcement and a really encouraging move,” said Germain, who also noted that two Arab nations — Egypt and the UAE — held official Holocaust remembrance events last year for the first time, and plan to do so again this year. “Those are examples of how the Abraham Accords are maybe making it easier to address these issues in the Middle East.”

In Europe, too, there has been progress recently on Holocaust-related issues. Last year, Latvia and Lithuania both passed long-awaited restitution measures. 

But at the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials continue to use Holocaust analogies to justify his invasion of Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week compared Western nations’ approach to the war as akin to Germany’s “final solution” in the Holocaust. “Such comments insult the six million Jews murdered and all those who fought and died to end Hitler’s murderous regime. We have to #ProtectTheFacts,” Germain tweeted.

What matters most to Germain is allowing Holocaust survivors to live the rest of their lives with dignity.

“For survivors these days, a certain amount of restitution or compensation is also the acknowledgment that, yes, this house belonged to my great-grandfather, or this was my great-aunt’s seamstress shop,” she said. “I view it as the last chance to really shine a big international spotlight on these issues while there’s still a significant number of survivors who can benefit from some form of restitution or compensation.”

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