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Edgar M. Bronfman Sr., President of the World Jewish Congress, addresses a meeting of The World Jewish Congress American Section Governing Board at the offices of The World Jewish Congress in New York Wednesday, May 9, 2007. Bronfman died Dec. 22, 2013, at the age of 84.

DAVID KARP/AP

Edgar M. Bronfman Sr., the Canadian-born billionaire and longtime president of the World Jewish Congress, which lobbied the Soviets to allow Jews to emigrate and helped spearhead the search for hidden Nazi loot, died Saturday. He was 84.

Bronfman died at his New York home surrounded by family, according to the family charity he led, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Bronfman was born in Montreal on June 20, 1929 and made his fortune with his family's Seagram's liquor empire. He joined the family business in 1957 and took over as chairman and CEO in 1971, continuing the work of his father, Samuel. Under Bronfman's leadership, Seagram expanded its offerings and was eventually acquired by French media and telecom group Vivendi Universal in 2000.

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But Bronfman's wealth, combined with his role in the World Jewish Congress, an umbrella group of Jewish organizations in some 80 countries that he led from 1979 to 2007, allowed him to be a tireless advocate for his fellow Jews.

"He was the first of his kind, a titan of industry that dedicated himself fully to advocating, advancing and encouraging the Jewish people," said Dana Raucher, executive director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Bronfman became a U.S. citizen in 1959 and in 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honour. In the citation, Bronfman was heralded for working "to ensure basic rights for Jews around the world."

In a 1986 Associated Press profile, he said his position and money helped him have access to world leaders.

"It's a combination of the two," Bronfman said. "In the end, it doesn't really matter why that access is available, as long as it is there."

The year before, he had become the first congress president to meet with Soviet officials in Moscow, bringing his case for human rights and taking a little time to promote Seagram's interests. He visited again in 1988, by which time Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, a key goal of the congress, had begun to rise under the reforming leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the congress also helped lead the effort to gain $11 billion in restitution for heirs of Holocaust victims.

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Jews in German and Nazi-held countries were stripped of their possessions, their artworks and even the gold fillings from their teeth in the regime's death camps. Much of the gold wound up in Swiss banks, and the institutions came under heavy criticism decades after the war ended for failing to make adequate reparations.

Bronfman's successor as WJC President, Ronald S. Lauder, called him "one of the great Jewish leaders of the past decades."

"Many Jews around the world are better off today because of Edgar's determined, unrelenting fight for justice on their behalf," Lauder said in a statement issued early Sunday morning.

"His name will forever be enshrined in the history books," he said.

In 1975, the Bronfman family made the news for a far different reason when one of Edgar Bronfman's sons, 21-year-old Samuel 2nd, was abducted in a New York suburb.

The family paid a $2.3 million ransom and Samuel was later found when authorities raided a Brooklyn apartment. The missing money was found under a bed and two men were arrested.

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The two were convicted of extortion, but acquitted of kidnapping, in a sensational 1976 trial in which the defence accused Samuel Bronfman of staging his own kidnapping as a hoax intended to cheat his father out of the ransom money. Samuel Bronfman denied the allegation and the prosecution called it "ridiculous."

With files from The Canadian Press

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