- In Memoriam:Dr. William Z. Slany
The editors and staff of Holocaust and Genocide Studies are saddened to note the passing of Dr. William Z. Slany, former chief historian of the U.S. State Department, on May 13 due to chronic heart ailments. He was 84.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1928, Slany served in the army during World War II and the postwar occupation of Japan. In 1951, he graduated from Ohio University and went on to earn his doctorate in Russian history from Cornell University in 1958. That same year, Slany joined the State Department’s Office of the Historian. He was the chief historian from 1982 until his retirement in September 2000.
Slany helped prepare sixteen volumes in the Foreign Relations of the United States series and oversaw the publication of another 125.
Numerous unclaimed accounts under the names of Jewish account holders remained in Swiss banks in the 1990s. In early 1996, at the urging of the World Jewish Congress and on the initiative of Senator Alfonse D’Amato, the U.S. Senate launched a series of hearings on the subject. Later that year, President Clinton assigned Stuart Eizenstat, who had served as a special envoy for property claims in Central and Eastern Europe, to begin an investigation. Eizenstat sought out Slany’s help when forming his team. Slany co-directed a two-part, interagency study focused on uncovering records of systematic Nazi looting of Jewish property and assets throughout Europe during the Second World War.
During this project, Slany oversaw the declassification of nearly one million pages of documentation and the indexing of more than 15 million pages by the National Archives and Records Administration. The report concluded that most of the unreturned property and assets were being stored in former neutral nations. Switzerland was estimated to have retained as much as $400 million in looted gold. The report also pointed to the United States government’s hesitation in seeking compensation for Holocaust victims. Overall, the most significant impact of this report was the successful settlement of $1.25 billion in belated compensation from Swiss banks to Holocaust victims or their heirs. Other wartime reparations issues, such as the return of stolen art and unpaid insurance policies for Holocaust victims, were also addressed.
Speaking about his work on this report in 1997, Slany noted: “Never have I had such an opportunity to apply my skills and experience as a historian to so worthy but difficult a challenge.” Upon retirement, Slany received the Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award from the State Department.
He is survived by his brother, Charles Slany, and several nieces and nephews. [End Page 565]