Saul Kagan, architect of Holocaust Restitution

Saul Kagan, architect of Holocaust Restitution

Saul Kagan, longtime executive director and then executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, died on Friday, November 8. He was 91 years old. Ironically, his death came only hours before the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass” that signaled the beginning of the Holocaust, the aftermath of which occupied Mr. Kagan’s life for the last 65 years.

Mr. Kagan made it his life’s work to gain as much money in reparations as possible for the survivors of the Shoah, and to see cultural and real property returned to the families of its victims. In these efforts, he once explained, he was guided by words spoken by the prophet Elijah to King Ahab, when he benefitted materially from the execution of a man falsely convicted of treason. Said Elijah to Ahab, “Would you murder and also inherit?”

Over the last 60 years, Mr. Kagan asked that question over and again in negotiations with Germany and its World War II European allies. He played a pivotal role in those talks, ever mindful of their unprecedented nature. For the first time in history, the Jewish people confronted those who would destroy them, demanding a measure of justice from them.

The momentousness of the task was never lost on Mr. Kagan. “If you look back to the destruction of the [Jerusalem] Temple, the Crusades, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, or, in more recent times, the pogroms in Russia in the 1890s, these catastrophes – inflicted on the Jewish people over 3,000 years of its history – resulted in mass exiles,” he said in a 2002 interview. “They were major human disasters, followed by exile and resettlement.”

Only after the Shoah, Mr. Kagan said, “did the organized Jewish world begin to think seriously about facing the perpetrators.”

That confrontation came at a castle outside the Hague in early 1952 and led to a series of historic and game-changing agreements with West Germany in September of that year.

The Luxembourg agreements, as the early pacts were called, “represent our efforts to achieve a measure of justice for Holocaust survivors,” Mr. Kagan recalled some years ago. “The principles embodied in them have aided hundreds of thousands of victims of Nazi persecution and have radiated far beyond Germany. What began as a revolutionary idea between a voluntary Jewish organization and the new state of West Germany has attained a transcendent and enduring significance.”

The momentous nature of the Luxembourg Agreements was not lost on others, as well. Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, echoed Mr. Kagan’s thoughts in a letter he wrote to the first president of the Claims Conference, Nahum Goldmann, after the pacts were signed. “For the first time in the history of the Jewish people, oppressed and plundered for hundreds of years… the oppressor and plunderer has had to hand back some of the spoil and pay collective compensation for part of the material losses,” Mr. Ben-Gurion wrote.

From the beginning, Mr. Kagan’s influence was considered crucial. His influence never waned. It was still crucial earlier this year, when Germany agreed to add approximately $1 billion towards homecare for Jewish Nazi victims through 2017, and to extend compensation from two reparations funds to as many as 3,000 Shoah survivors who were previously considered ineligible.

Others have referred to Mr. Kagan as a giant of Holocaust compensation and restitution, but he always downplayed his role, never seeking any credit for himself, always quick to give credit to others. Morality trumped organizational politics, he once explained, and the end result was always more important to him than whether his name was associated with it. “This is not a job,” he told a Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter in 2002. “It never was.”

The results Mr. Kagan and his colleagues achieved were significant and impressive: approximately $70 billion paid in pensions by Germany directly to survivors as a result of negotiations in the 1950s; another $6 billion paid in additional programs created since 1980.

Sometimes, survivor groups and others would criticize decisions made by Mr. Kagan and the Claims Conference. In the early days, some of that criticism turned to confrontations that were so violent, some New York hotels refused to rent meeting rooms to the organization, and the Claims Conference president, Nahum Goldmann, was always accompanied by a bodyguard. Mr. Kagan recalled that in one early protest, a survivor tried “to crack my head open” with his wooden leg.

Mr. Kagan often found that the criticisms being leveled were “meritorious,” as he put it, but “not practical.” He made no apologies for what he and the Claims Conference achieved.

At “every stage of our activities,” he once recalled, “we were confronted with the question: After serious negotiations, after using all the means at our disposal, are we going to achieve what we set out to achieve? Do we ultimately settle because a significant number of Holocaust survivors will benefit, or not? Whatever we have achieved was always some kind of a compromise. Our overriding consideration, from day one, is to secure optimum compensation for the survivors within the framework of the attainable.”

It was this approach of seeking the achievable rather than the ideal, Mr. Kagan felt, that allowed compensation programs to expand to include more money and additional survivors over the years.

Mr. Kagan also was willing to hold talks he knew would lead nowhere, but served a moral purpose. In 1987, for example, he held talks with the East German leader Erich Honecker about the German Democratic Republic’s responsibilities to Holocaust victims. Those talks did not result in any agreements, but established the principle that Germany’s obligation to Nazi victims extended to both sides of the Berlin Wall.

Building on that, in 1990 Mr. Kagan was instrumental in negotiating expanded restitution and reparations agreements with the government of the newly unified Germany. He also pushed for the right of the Claims Conference to recover any Jewish properties that went unclaimed, so that they would not revert to the state, or remain in the hands of wartime non-Jewish owners.

The sale of these recovered properties provided enough revenue to fund over $1 billion in vital social services to Shoah victims worldwide, including hunger relief, homecare, medical aid, and other assistance needed by aging, frail survivors.

Mr. Kagan also helped spearhead decades of negotiations with the government of Austria, which refused for decades to accept responsibility for its role in the persecution of its Jews. After achieving several smaller agreements over the decades, Mr. Kagan’s efforts bore fruit in 2001, when Austria’s government and industry jointly agreed to a $500 million compensation and restitution package for the country’s Jewish survivors. That deal was brokered by the U.S. State Department in the final days of the Clinton Administration.

Saul Kagan was born in Vilna, Lithuania, in 1922. He left in 1940 and traveled by trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok. From there, he sailed to Japan, then on to Hawaii, to San Francisco, and finally to relatives in New York.

After settling there, Mr. Kagan joined the U.S. Air Force. He was assigned to a special intelligence unit that provided close air support to U.S. infantry. He landed on a Normandy beach three days after D-Day, and he took part in the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war, Mr. Kagan served as a colonel in the U.S. military government in Berlin. As chief of financial intelligence, he uncovered the role the German banking system played in financing the war and in the confiscation of Jewish property. The information Mr. Kagan uncovered was used in the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

From the beginning of his tour in Germany, Mr. Kagan recalled in 2002, he “encountered many Jewish and non-Jewish slaves along the roads. I came across survivors of all kinds.”

Those encounters determined for Mr. Kagan the road he felt he had to take for the rest of his life.

In 1947, he helped promulgate U.S. Government Military Order #59, which gave Holocaust survivors or families of victims the ability to file claims for property confiscated by the Nazis. Mr. Kagan then was asked to create the first asset restitution body, which became known as the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization. In 1951, the JRSO gave way to the Claims Conference, and Mr. Kagan was named its executive director.

That brought Mr. Kagan to the center of history in the making on March 21, 1952, when he and Nahum Goldmann led the delegation that met with West German officials in a castle in Wassenaar in a Hague suburb. The meeting had been called by West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who made no secret either of his desire to meet the Jewish demand for reparations, or of his loathing of everything Nazi. As Mr. Kagan recalled it, however, Adenauer’s posture did nothing to ease the tension.

“At the opening session, not a greeting was exchanged between the Jews and the Germans; every word spoken was icily correct, but no more. Every Jew at the conference was keenly aware of an invisible presence haunting that room, the presence of six million dead.”

Mr. Kagan also recalled to an interviewer what he thought before entering that first meeting. “Whatever will come out of these negotiations is not going to be German philanthropy or charity or goodwill,” he said, “but it will be in payment of legally established and legally anchored claims and demands.”

During his six decades with the Claims Conference, Mr. Kagan’s memory for details of agreements and negotiations was flawless. He could be asked a question about an agreement with Austria in the 1960s, for example, and provide not only details, but historical context and the names of key players in the talks. He spoke eight languages.

Reparations and restitution were not the only concerns of the Claims Conference under Mr. Kagan. He was determined that the memory of the Shoah would never disappear. As such, he led the organization to help establish the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, as well as its program to honor righteous non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. In 1965, he and Goldmann also oversaw establishment by the Claims Conference of the Memorial Fund for Jewish Culture.

Mr. Kagan was buried earlier this week in a private service. He is survived by his wife, Eleanor; a daughter, Julia, and two stepchildren, Jonathan and Emily Lobatto.

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