Was Saul Kagan a Jewish hero, as the New York Times obit says?

I first met Mr. Kagan, who died this week at age 91, in 1997 when I was investigating complaints that German-Jewish heirs discovered that they could no longer re-claim their properties in the former East Germany. Dormant for many years, the Claims Conference sprung to life when the Berlin Wall came down. Still run by Kagan, its leadership had quietly and ingeniously pushed through legislation in Bonn in 1990 that made the Conference inheritors of all Jewish owned, Nazi looted assets, including, buildings, factories, art, Judaica, jewelry and stocks after the deadline, which was, December 31, 1992.

Theoretically, it was a nice idea. Jewish property would stay in Jewish hands, and money gleaned from the sale or rental of properties, would allow the Conference to support survivor-related causes via its own board members (thus enriching the organization immensely and making it supremely influential). Late-claiming heirs would get (and got) some compensation from the Conference’s so-called “Goodwill Fund” which paid out a percentage of the properties’ worth. To underscore its frugality, Kagan told me back in 1997, that the Conference didn’t even own a single computer( I even had one!) and he politely asked me not to write anything unflattering about the Conference and thus endanger the German pensions to survivors, attract unscrupulous lawyers, and create anti-Semitism in Germany. (The Conference, also often controversial manner administered these pensions.)

But by December 31, 1997, the Goodwill Fund was about to close and there were many questions surrounding the Conference’s policies. For example: they had barely advertised that there was a deadline; allegedly, sold off some of the properties even though the claimants had made timely claims; barely looked for heirs; via their “circle of inheritors” determined who was and wasn’t an heir; worked with a coterie of hand-picked brokers; kept quiet about other German-Jewish assets—where were these things? Ignoring Kagan’s advice, I wrote about the old men’s club which Kagan was part of.

Letters promptly poured in from unhappy heirs all over the world. There was a man from Israel who found out that his in-laws had committed suicide during the Nazi era, and now wanted their buildings in Berlin back; a professor from Massachusetts who unsuccessfully claimed buildings in Dresden owned by his mother and aunt; famous historians from Great Britain who tried in vain to claim their parents’ assets; a woman from Jackson Heights, Queens who hired a New York lawyer and sued the Conference for damages made to her doctor-parents’ sanatorium-mansion, when the Conference “owned” it; a Tel Aviv man who could not get the Conference to recognize that he was his uncle’s heir. I still have the letters. Moreover a high official at the Jewish Agency gave me a report in which the Conference referred to heirs as “inheritance chasers” and detailed how to be rid of them.

The Conference denied all, but buttressing my points, the “Goodwill Fund” was extended by a year, to the end of 1998. (With British and German governmental pressure, it was re-opened in 2004 for 6 months to accommodate the needs of some Jewish-German “kindertransport” children who never knew about their slain relative’s assets in Germany.)
Kagan vanished but reappeared as a Conference “advisor”. Still, his departure or marginalization, heralded a new era at the Conference. Suddenly, professional functionaries were hired; computers were installed, glossy brochures were produced and a website was added.

In that hopeful spirit, several years ago, I asked the Conference to pay some compensation to the family of a dying NYC survivor whose German Jewish father had owned a Berlin building. I knew the man personally and his medical costs were astronomical. Only after more than a year of grueling bargaining and of demands for a maddening number of documents did the family receive some compensation. Till today, heirs approach me for help getting back their properties but they probably never will. Some are not Jewish; some are not related to the original owner closely enough for the Conference’s tastes. Conference leaders told me, recently, that Holocaust restitution was and is a thankless job. I am sure Kagan meant well. Even so, his legacy of secrecy, which treated the Conference like a private Mom and Pop operation, lives on.