Hurting victims, ruining reputations

Hurting victims, ruining reputations

“And He gave them a charge concerning the Children of Israel.” (Exodus 6:13) What was the charge? Says the midrash, “God said to [Moses and Aaron]: My children are obstinate, bad-tempered and troublesome. In assuming leadership over them, expect them to curse you and even stone you.” For more than two decades, my late wife, the journalist Marilyn Cohen Henry, dedicated herself to providing the most accurate and honest reports possible on all matters involving restitution and compensation for the victims of the Shoah. The victims, she said, deserved no less than the whole truth, without embellishment or “political spin.”

She so completely immersed herself in the complicated international morass of laws and regulations and agreements that organizations and governments alike sought her counsel and advice, as attested at her memorial service by a former ambassador of Israel and a former United States ambassador to Germany who became the State Department’s point man on restitution matters.

She also often was asked to speak on these issues, especially at the height of the Swiss bank and insurance battles of the mid-1990s. Marilyn declined fees, asking instead for a social worker to be present at her talks. The survivors in the audience, she explained, were certain to become agitated. A professional was needed to help get them through it.

“Agitated” may be too soft a word to describe how Shoah survivors react to these issues. Every discussion of them brings forth visceral emotional responses from survivors.

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day The reports regarding the Swiss banks and the European insurance companies sent their reactions into overdrive. What made it worse were the exaggerated and often unfounded claims by supposed Jewish leaders and petty politicians who put self-promotion ahead of concerns for the victims.

Now it is happening again. A complex, well-buried 17-year scheme to defraud the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany is being used by some in the media and organizational worlds for personal aggrandizement, with no regard for what this may be doing to the survivors, nearly all of whom are in their final years.

That this violates Judaism’s laws of bad speech (lashon hara) and slanderous statements (motzei shem ra) is clear. It is also morally reprehensible.

Equally violative of halachah and morally reprehensible is what is being done to the reputations of two men who deserve better from the Jewish world.

The two men are Rabbi Israel Miller of blessed memory and Saul Kagan. Miller was president of the Claims Conference from 1982 until his passing in 2002. He also chaired its board and its executive during that time, meaning that he, not current chairman Julius Berman, was the “chairman” who allegedly withheld information about the fraud. Kagan spent 47 years at the organization, first as its executive director, then as its executive vice president. He retired at the end of the 1990s, but nevertheless put in long days working for the organization for many years after that. The complicated fraud scheme began under his and Miller’s watch.

Miller was a chaplain in the Army Air Corps during World War II. One of his precious memories following the war was marching in his army uniform at rallies urging the creation of a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine.

A congregational rabbi for most of his adult life (at the Kingsbridge Heights Jewish Center in the Bronx), his résumé attests to his dedication to his people. He chaired the American Zionist Council, the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry, the Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy of the National Jewish Welfare Board, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and served as president of the Rabbinical Council of America.

When the founding president of the Claims Conference, Dr. Nahum Goldmann, died in 1982, Miller was the logical choice to succeed him.

Kagan, of course, already was there.

A Lithuanian emigre, Kagan joined the U.S. Army after Pearl Harbor. In Germany, as he once explained to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter, he “encountered many Jewish and non-Jewish slaves along the roads. I came across survivors of all kinds.”

Kagan dedicated the rest of his life to seeking “a measure of justice” for the Nazis’ Jewish victims.

The Claims Conference run by Miller and Kagan was a Spartan operation. They were there to help make the lives of survivors a bit easier, not build an empire for themselves. They eschewed publicity as they doggedly pursued every possible approach to gaining more desperately needed funds for survivors; the money they collected in the name of the victims was meant for those victims.

They achieved an extraordinary record, yet they often were vilified by survivor groups who believed the pie was exclusively theirs to carve up, and by other Jewish leaders, who could not match their successes and so chose to second-guess their labors instead.

Miller became gravely ill in late 2001, about the time the anonymous first letter appeared; he would die in May 2002. His illness, however, did not stop him from working for as long as he could from his home in Jerusalem on Claims Conference business, including arranging for a successor, and creating a more efficient leadership scheme by dividing his position into three separate ones.

Kagan, as noted, often put in long hours every day on Claims Conference business long after he retired. He still is involved at 91.

Since 2009, the Claims Conference has put into place new procedures to prevent a recurrence of such fraud schemes. It has cooperated fully with the Justice Department and FBI in their investigations. Everything that could be done has been done. No good can be served by the renewed attacks.

The leaks, misstatements, and bad reporting are hurting survivors in their final years. They also are eating away at the reputations of two great men and the organization they shepherded for decades. And it is all being done to score publicity points.

Is there no shame left in the Jewish world?