Elan Steinberg, who brought what he called a new, “American style” assertiveness to the World Jewish Congress as its top executive, winning more than $1 billion from Swiss banks for Holocaust victims and challenging Kurt Waldheim, the former United Nations secretary general, over his Nazi past, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 59.
The cause was complications of lymphatic cancer, his wife, Sharon, said.
As its executive director from 1978 to 2004, Mr. Steinberg was a key strategist for the congress as it grew bolder under a younger generation of Jews. He helped organize the research, hearings, press leaks and lawsuit that led the Swiss banks to agree to pay $1.2 billion to Holocaust victims in the late 1990s.
He also ruffled feathers. Abraham Foxman, the 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.”
Even Simon Wiesenthal, the relentless hunter of Nazi war criminals, questioned the congress’s new aggressiveness when it threw itself into the Austrian presidential campaign in 1986 to try to defeat Mr. Waldheim, who was ultimately elected. Mr. Waldheim had hidden his membership in a Nazi military unit linked to atrocities.
Mr. Wiesenthal argued that Mr. Waldheim was “an opportunist” but not a war criminal. He worried that the congress, by inserting itself into Austria’s internal politics, was undoing years of patient work toward reconciling young Austrians and Jews.
Mr. Steinberg countered that electing Mr. Waldheim would stain all Austrians. “In the whole world it will be said that a former Nazi and a liar is the representative of Austria,” he said.
The tough stance was a departure for the congress, which was formed in 1936 in response to the rising Nazi threat in Europe and whose headquarters are now in New York. Mr. Steinberg himself used the word “strident” to describe his approach in taking the once-staid organization into quarrels, as it did in 1985 when President Ronald Reagan, alongside Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany, visited a German cemetery in which Nazi SS soldiers were buried.
“For a long time,” Mr. Steinberg said, “the World Jewish Congress was meant to be the greatest secret of Jewish life, because the nature of diplomacy after the war was quiet diplomacy. This is a newer, American-style leadership — less timid, more forceful, unashamedly Jewish.”
Mr. Steinberg steered the congress in opposing the presence of a Carmelite convent at the site of the Auschwitz death camp and championing former slave laborers under the Nazis in their fight for compensation.
When Steven Spielberg was making the 1993 film “Schindler’s List,” he wanted to shoot scenes inside a building that had been part of the Auschwitz camp, Mrs. Steinberg said. As she recounted the episode, Mr. Spielberg went to the congress and conferred with Mr. Steinberg, who told him, “You cannot film on the graves of Jews.” Mr. Spielberg instead built a replica of the building.
“Whenever Jews were in danger, or Jewish honor offended, he vigorously yet elegantly spoke up,” Elie Wiesel, the author and Holocaust survivor, said in a statement read at Mr. Steinberg’s funeral. “Whenever Jewish memory was attacked, he attacked the attacker.”
Elan Steinberg was born in Rishon LeZion, Israel, on June 2, 1952, to Holocaust survivors. He grew up in the Brownsville and Borough Park sections of Brooklyn and was a graduate of Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and Brooklyn College. He received a master’s degree in political science from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, then taught there.
He joined the congress in 1978 as its United Nations representative, and rose to executive director — first of the American section, then of the world body. Menachem Rosensaft, the congress’s general counsel, said Mr. Steinberg was instrumental in persuading the Vatican and Spain to recognize Israel.
Mr. Steinberg resigned in 2004 but remained a consultant to the congress’s president, Ronald S. Lauder. He was vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.
In addition to his wife, the former Sharon Cohen, Mr. Steinberg, who lived in Manhattan, is survived by his children, Max, Harry and Lena Steinberg, and his brother, Alex.
Mr. Rosensaft told another story to illustrate his friend’s mix of grit and wit. Mr. Steinberg was negotiating one day with the French culture minister to recover paintings stolen from Jews during the Holocaust. The minister huffed that Mr. Steinberg knew nothing about art.
“You’re right,” Mr. Steinberg said. “I don’t know anything about art. I’m from Brooklyn. I know about stolen goods.”