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In defense of Saul Kagan

A response to criticism of the late founder of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany

For Netty Gross to attack Saul Kagan z”l, a hero of the Jewish people, after his death is beyond the pale of what should be considered mainstream journalism or even published opinion pieces. Mr. Kagan was the architect of Holocaust compensation and restitution, a unique chapter in Jewish history that many today take for granted but in reality only came about through his unique vision, dedication and perseverance. There are survivors the world over who never and will never know the name of Saul Kagan, but his work helped them live out their lives with an added measure of dignity.

Had Mr. Kagan not led the Claims Conference’s efforts in 1990, to press the newly united German government, to allow former Jewish owners and heirs to file claims for properties in the former East Germany at the same time that others could claim Communist-nationalized property, the Jewish assets in that region lost in the Shoah would have been permanently gone. They would have reverted to the state or to wartime “aryanizers.”

Knowing that many families were decimated in the Shoah, the Claims Conference indeed also pressured the German government to enable the organization to recover those Jewish properties that went unclaimed. The idea was not to “enrich the organization” as Netty Gross cynically states, but to use the proceeds to fund food packages, medical care and winter relief to aging survivors around the world. Mr. Kagan’s vision in pressing for a Claims Conference role in these unclaimed assets meant that an impoverished Nazi victim in the former Soviet Union, who had never received anything from Germany for her suffering, could receive a hot meal and extra blankets. It meant that an infirm survivor in Israel could have a walker and obtain psychological care. It meant that an isolated Holocaust victim in Brooklyn could have a friendly visitor and help in paying for eyeglasses.

Saul Kagan’s vision also meant that owners and heirs could file claims for their properties through the Claims Conference’s Goodwill Fund, after the German government filing deadlines had long passed. After expending the time and resources to research, claim and recover properties, the Claims Conference has been able to pay owners and heirs close to $1 billion for assets that it recovered – restitution that would have never happened without Mr. Kagan’s drive and dedication to ensure that these East German Jewish properties were not turned over to the government.

The Claims Conference conducted worldwide advertising campaigns to inform property owners and heirs that they could file claims through the Claims Conference for assets it had recovered. The Goodwill Fund deadline was extended repeatedly through the Claims Conference’s own initiative and not due to any pressure from any government; its criteria have been amended several times; and one-third of the proceeds of the properties recovered by the Claims Conference have been used to compensate heirs and owners. Those advertisements included offers, for no charge, to help applicants through the organization’s Department for Property Identification.

Contrary to Ms. Gross’ false assertion, Mr. Kagan never “vanished” from the Claims Conference. After retiring as Executive Vice President in 1999 following 47 years of service to the organization that resulted in dozens of agreements with German and Austrian government and industry, Mr. Kagan certainly would have been entitled to end or at least decrease his involvement with the Claims Conference. Instead, he continued to devote his expertise, wisdom and historical knowledge to the mission of obtaining a small measure of justice for Holocaust victims and their heirs.

Recent achievements in negotiations – including historic increases in German government homecare funding and dramatic changes to compensation programs that will enable tens of thousands of additional victims to receive payments – were all built on the foundation laid by Mr. Kagan. In decades of negotiations with the German government and other entities, he established the precedent and the principle that the suffering of each and every Holocaust victim must be recognized and acknowledged.

Saul Kagan proved that courage and faith can infuse daily events with historical significance, and he knew when historical events would make gains possible. Mr. Kagan both created history through his efforts and used history to create new possibilities. That is his enduring legacy.

About the Author
Julius Berman is Chairman of The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
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