When Judge Edward R. Korman asked us to assist him as special master and deputy special master with the allocation and oversight of the $1.25 billion Swiss Banks Settlement, we knew that there were lessons we needed to learn from those who had devised and administered earlier Holocaust compensation programs. We remain ever grateful that our patient teacher was Saul Kagan, the legendary creator of so many of those programs, who died of natural causes on November 9, at 91.
Kagan had too much humility to offer his advice, but he gave it generously when asked, and we learned to ask often. He would not use the word “restitution,” as it implied making whole what never could be, and so he educated us instead about the decades of Holocaust “compensation” that preceded our work. He never mentioned his own accomplishments, and found it difficult to use the word “I.” He would talk not of his own tragic losses, but only of those of other victims. His voice barely rose above a whisper, but his life’s work spoke volumes.
Although he was a true hero, one would be hard-pressed to find much about him in the literature. And that was how he wanted it. But every so often, he allowed himself to be quoted, and we thought those words best explain who Saul Kagan was.
When he described how he first became involved with the cause that became his mission for more than six decades, he did not mention that he had lost his own mother and brother to the Nazis: “I grew up in Vilna until I finished secondary school, and then I was supposed to go to medical school and then Hitler and Stalin divided Poland. I came to America in 1940. I was 18 years old, and I went into the American Army. I landed in Normandy by air—and I was in the Battle of the Bulge. I could provide services to the U.S. government, so they used me. I was shifted into the offices of General Clay. The JDC [Joint Distribution Committee] was looking for people, and they found me. I was asked to be the first executive director of the Claims Conference—not because they liked my blue eyes, but because by that time I already had experience.”
“I was there, at the beginning, you see,” he continued. “The Jewish world had to urgently care for the survivors, but we had to simultaneously deal with the other consequences, too. Since millions of Jews died, it was clear that there would be heirless property. In late 1945, the organized Jewish community began working with the U.S. military and the State Department, and as a result, the first restitution law on German soil was not a German law but an American law, brought into the American Zone in 1947.”
In describing the years that followed as he established and led the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, he pointed out in an October 2010 issue of The Jerusalem Report that the “word material is not incidental. From the very beginning our position was that we are not settling a moral claim, nor are we asking for charity or generosity. We are asserting a legal claim in the name of people who were individually and collectively unjustly deprived of their assets.”
He devoted himself to the Jewish victims but remembered others, too, beginning with those who had helped during the Holocaust.
Ronald Zweig, in his book, German Reparations and the Jewish World: A History of the Claims Conference, tells how Kagan explained his commitment to the Righteous Among the Nations program, which he had developed: “In the most horrible period of terror, persecution and destruction of life, these individuals were ready to risk their own lives and the lives of their families. We consider them to be exceptional human beings. This is our special moral responsibility.”
He stressed in his interview with The Jerusalem Report that the “Holocaust is not just a historical event, it is a moral lesson. What starts as prejudice and hate can find a way to kill in crematoria, or in killing fields, or in Darfur. When the survivors will no longer be alive to tell their story, the responsibility of the future generations will be even greater.”
In his mid-50s, he was still traveling the globe, negotiating for Jewish survivors, while taking the time to offer his unmatched experience to younger people seeking to help other victims of newer atrocities.
Of his own work, he said: “If you wake up at l a.m. and face yourself quietly, without a cell phone or meetings to go to, you know that we established important principles, but we can never really conclude our job. There is no real compensation.”
We would modify that last observation to note that there would have been no real compensation without Kagan. He was in every sense, as his family recently has said, a “thoughtful modest, deeply righteous man who left the world better.”
By Judah Gribetz and Shari C. Reig, (reprinted with permission from The Forward)