‘There Is No Real Compensation’

Saul Kagan, former executive director of the Claims Conference, speaks to The Report.

Kagan 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kagan 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“I WAS THERE, AT THE BEGINNING, you see,” says Saul Kagan, pronouncing every word deliberately in a raspy, thick Eastern European accent.
As chief of Financial Intelligence of the US Military Government in Germany, Kagan, now 88, was “there,” in the American sector of Berlin after the end of World War II, and was one of the first to deal with issues of restitution and compensation for Jewish victims, first through the initiatives of the American occupation, then as the first executive director of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (“Claims Conference”), established in 1951, until his retirement in 1998. He continues to serve as an adviser to the Claims Conference to this day.
Dignified and elegant, Kagan speaks in full, highly articulated paragraphs. When he digresses, it is quickly clear that it is to provide context and background to the point he wants to make. Engagingly, he maintains full control of the conversation. And it is about the Claims Conference, and not about himself, that he wants to talk in an interview with The Jerusalem Report.
At the end of World War II, he begins, “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 US 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.”
He “digresses” to talk about the 18th century BCE Codex of Hammurabi, which established that heirless property reverts to the state. Then he segues, “We claimed that it is absolutely unacceptable that after the murder of six million Jews, the successor state to the Third Reich would inherit heirless Jewish property that became heirless because of the murderous campaign of its predecessor… It is to the great credit of the Jewish organizations that they prevailed and the military government’s restitution law contained a provision that heirless property would be transferred to a successor organization, which would use the funds for the benefit of the victims of Nazi persecution and for education and commemoration.”
Seeking Jews in the military occupation capable of working with this new legislation, the American Jewish organizations tapped Kagan, who was posted in the offices of the US military governor in Germany, General Lucius Clay. “So I turned to my boss [Clay] and asked for a year of absence to help materialize the law that he himself helped bring to Germany. That year is still continuing.”
He remembers every detail of the meetings between the new West German government, headed by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Jewish organizations, and the State of Israel. On October 25, 1951, Adenauer acknowledged the “unspeakable crimes committed in the name of the German people” and called on world Jewry to create a representative organization. The organization became the Claims Conference.
“No government,” Kagan reiterates forcefully, “has the right to enrich itself from the profits of the victims of the Nazis. No government! Israel has finally enacted a law establishing a successor organization [Hashava] for the victims of Nazi prosecution who had assets in Palestine-Israel. Israel, the Custodian General and the banks must deliver on this.”
And responsibility, he insists, does not end with the perpetrators. The next generations may not be guilty, but they must be responsible. These principles form the basis for the ongoing negotiations with the countries of Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. “That is why we still have an open agenda, even now,” he explains.
He points to the word “material” on a formal document of the Claims Conference. “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.” The lessons of the Jewish people’s tragedy must be carried forward to the world at large, he insists. “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.”
Asked about the interplay of his life and the historical events that surrounded him, he says quickly, as if summarizing, “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 US government so they used me. I was shifted into the offices of General Clay. The JDC 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.”
He consistently refuses to answer questions about his own family, saying towards the end of the interview, “I made a vow to myself to never publicly make reference to my personal life in relationship to the Shoah. I came to America alone. I have much to mourn. But we all mourn in our own way. I do not know why I am the way I am. I have had much tragedy in my life, but I mourn privately, alone.”
Over the decades, the Claims Conference has been the focus of complaints, accusations of corruption, and scandals. But Kagan, who has been involved in everything the conference has ever done, seems somehow removed from these, more part of the history of the organization he helped to create than of the organization itself.
He concludes by assessing the work of his lifetime. “If you wake up at 1 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.”