Edgar Bronfman Sr., who is spearheading efforts to get Swiss banks to release monies belonging to survivors of the Holocaust and the families of its victims, will speak at the University of Rochester's 149th commencement Sunday, May 16. He will also receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.
Bronfman is chairman of The Seagram Company Ltd., the distillery company his father built into an empire. He joined the company after graduating from college in 1951, starting as a clerk and rising through the ranks to become president in 1971 and chairman in 1975.
During the 1970s, Bronfman became a campaigner for Jewish issues. President of the World Jewish Congress since 1981, he has advocated for Soviet Jews and exposed the wartime connections of Kurt Waldheim, former secretary-general of the United Nations, to the Nazis.
In September 1995, Bronfman first met with Swiss banking officials about the issue of Holocaust assets, carrying a letter from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin authorizing him to represent the interests of the Jewish people. His efforts led to an agreement by the two largest Swiss banks in August 1998, to pay $1.25 billion to settle suits arising out of the blocked assets.
Bronfman is also president of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which, in addition to the issue of the Swiss banks, has worked to return Jewish communal property in Eastern Europe that was first confiscated by the Nazis and then by the Communists.
As part of his globetrotting diplomacy, Bronfman has conferred with the world's top decision-makers, including Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, Golda Meir, and Bill Clinton.
Bronfman has written two memoirs: The Making of a Jew and Good Spirits: The Making of a Businessman.
The grandson of immigrants, Bronfman was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1929 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1959. He earned a bachelor's degree from McGill University in Montreal and has received honorary degrees from New York University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Williams College, and the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University. He was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur by the government of France, as well as the Justice Louis D. Brandeis Award by the Zionist Organization of America.