When he was 25 years old, Saul Kagan was a colonel in the U.S. Army attached to an intelligence unit in occupied Berlin, where he headed up a unit that investigated the financial underpinnings of the Nazi death machine. Just a few years earlier, he escaped that machine, although most of his family did not. In occupied Germany, he encountered survivors, saw their plight firsthand, and heard their tragic tales.
And he made a decision: He would spend the rest of his life trying to bring a “measure of justice,” as he put it, for them, their families, and those who were martyred-especially for them; in every negotiation, he “was keenly aware of an invisible presence haunting that room, the presence of six million dead.”
One of his first acts was to help promulgate a military order allowing the survivors to reclaim the property Germany stole from them. He was then instrumental in founding and steering the work of the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization, which in 1951 gave way to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. In 1999, he retired as its executive vice president, although he continued his work into his 90th year.
On Friday, at the age of 91, Saul Kagan died. He was a humble man who never sought glory for himself, a true hero of the Jewish people, and a Jewish leader par excellence. (See the obituary on page 41.)
To him, the work was a mission, not a job, and he was single-minded in its pursuit. For that, government officials in the United States, Israel, and Germany, among others, are praising him. For the wisdom he always freely shared with them, Jewish organizations and their leaders are mourning what they correctly call a great loss for the Jewish people. For what he lovingly fought for and gained for them – more than $76 billion in reparations and other monies; thousands of hospital beds, and in-home medical care for indigent and elderly survivors around the world; psychological and psychiatric care; meals delivered to the home-bound, and so much more – survivors grieve at the loss of their champion.
His influence will continue to be felt for years to come. The negotiations he helped create and steward, the historical precedents he helped establish that have served as the paradigm in all cases of genocide ever since anywhere in the world, the lines of communication he helped open between victim and perpetrator, are his legacy, and that legacy will continue to pay dividends even as they eke out a little more justice with each new agreement.
Mr. Kagan was not without his critics, but he never let the criticism distract him from his mission, just as he never let his successes feed his ego. While he often agreed with his critics that more should be done, he knew he had to focus only on what could be done. Time and again, he pushed the envelope, usually with great success.
If there is a world to come, Mr. Kagan arrived there to be greeted by his two partners in his noble task – Nahum Goldmann, the conference’s first president, and Rabbi Israel Miller, who followed him. His achievements are theirs as well, although Mr. Kagan might argue that the credit is theirs, not his.
May the memory of Saul Kagan be a blessing for us all, and may the memory of his humility and grace guide all who would be our leaders.