The Miracle that was Saul Kagan
You’d want to see what it was like in that room. All the leaders of every major Jewish organization from around the world, everyone with their own agenda, coats and hats off separating the religious from the secular, a few forearms with prison camp tattoos, each face holding various tells of politicking to come. Saul Kagan knew them all and disarmed them at will. He no longer held voting power—in fact, he and his secretary, Fran, who nobody will mention, were relegated to the back of the main office already—but that room was his domain. He was the only one amongst us who had been in Luxembourg when Konrad Adenauer signed the agreements. Mr. Kagan had been one of the architects of this strategy to obtain “justice not charity,” and fifty years earlier he watched the signatures go on paper. At every turn of Adenauer’s pen he repressed the faces that came to him—his mother and siblings who were killed by the Nazis, his destroyed community, all the suffering of Europe. He saw the ink take to the page as plain as desert sun: it was a big compromise for a little justice.
In 2003 I was on the Luxembourg trip acting as the special assistant to the heads of the Claims Conference, the New York City-based umbrella organization that evolved from that famous meeting that legally established the Jewish claim to material compensation from the German government. I had already witnessed the harrowing business of distributing funds and I anticipated the hostile relationships that would play out in that room, but we were there to commemorate a crucial moment in history and most of the weekend was devoted to ceremony. It didn’t mean there weren’t informal meetings held throughout Luxembourg City that week. From sizing up the bicker in our hotel lobby I imagined the names of powerful men paraded and trampled in conversation in all its districts. The hundred or so of us crossing paths like characters in a “Shakespaherian rag”: Mr. Kagan’s holdouts and some of the others still committed to work done on actual paper, my bosses arguing their methods of administering programs more expeditiously to ageing stakeholders, the old guard complaining about the costs, the new guard interested in paying for what they got. They all relied on Mr. Kagan as an adviser.
Back in Manhattan, Mr. Kagan still came to the office every day, and every day he met important men and women whose actions had an enormous impact on thousands of lives, and at the end of the day most days he took his briefcase, walked east to the subway, and rode the Lexington line back to the heart of the Bronx where he had lived out his adult life and never left, even when he was one of the few remaining European faces. He had an accent you couldn’t figure, and you didn’t mind where it was from, it was just surprising that he wasn’t born in the States. Everything he said was eloquent. He cared deeply to communicate meaningfully with people. He told me that he taught himself German so he could negotiate with the Germans. You can research what he accomplished in his lifetime and try to believe it. He was somebody who would blend in the crowd but also be thinking in ways nobody else could. He was an engaging man. He used to call me into his office to help him with research and I found myself wanting to ask him my own questions. I often took his responses and then engaged him further with a lump in my throat. He told stories that made him incredibly real. He put history into context with passion and plot so that you were made aware your love for him came from the irrational sense that one day he would no longer exist.
At that point in my life I wasn’t disciplined with my notebooks so I never wrote down what Mr. Kagan said. In fact, it hadn’t been so much the content that gripped me as the character. I had grown up around survivors in Los Angeles and within my family, and I knew few Jews unaffected by the Holocaust. There was not much I didn’t get; it was harsh, it was cruel, it left brutal marks on the way everybody felt and treated one another. To a first generation American boy growing up in a bedroom community, though, the weight of someone’s grandmother’s journey was too tremendous to bear. I wanted something that was festive. I wanted to make fun of accents. To eat fruit and be told old tales that I should not to eat too much or too close to the white of the rinds or I’d get sick. I wanted to look on the sunny side of life. It’s impossible to understand fully the experience of another person, unless their version relies completely on logic. That’s what I took from the stories my mom and dad told me and from the faces I saw in Israel when I went for the first time in 1980. I admitted to myself then that I had a different way of thinking. Why my petit mind knew that, I imagine, has something to do with survival itself. Protection. I felt something very deeply at the simple sight of the faces, but there was nothing to do at all about them.
Saul Kagan did the work. I just came I after and managed some of the logic. The story was buried along with the bodies. Very often it was so far behind the scene, or so produced, that even putting a face to it in a photo was difficult. History can only speak in reverse, engineering a version of what it was. I wanted to live in what was right then. Not to hear about how these people would soon depart from the world and leave us to carry the culture. You often love someone much more dearly when they leave you, but I couldn’t do that. Nor could I love them when they were right there, either. The powerful feelings had no outlet. Empathy was useless.
Mr. Kagan was vibrant. He had conceded to the new administration and they to him, and there are examples to prove it, but he was bigger than that. I’ve tried to understand why I felt such a kinship with him. It takes considering the other relationships I’ve had like that. There are times when I looked up to older men because I liked how I felt around them. They were grown and yet they hadn’t given up on the life inside of them. Whether it was their vision to help as many people as they could, or opening the window in their office to have a celebratory cigarette, or being such an institutional memory that the wrecking ball of progress couldn’t crush them, my reaction to these men always had something to do with my own desire to want to know what it was like to be a man.
I never asked my dad why I felt so much for him I could never express. He would have answered with logic. I might have asked him how to take real action when you love somebody. The war within myself was between revealing and restraint. I knew how to parrot what I had seen. I didn’t know how to translate my feelings into action. There was all the unessential verbiage that occupied my moving lips and nothing to show for it.
The toughest thing in the world is not to be able to love who you love. So how do you show someone you love them? Someone who is also caught up in their own battles, who you see as having a life inside them? Maybe they don’t mind when they are flat-lined by external factors, when things don’t come out right; maybe they have controlled all of the other elements in their lives to discount their failures. Some must have the courage to never look back. We become our own meaning maker, take our own chances at building our own loves, improve on the mistakes that came before us, repent for some, rejoice in the progress others made, and afterwards what we have left is what we build with our imagination.
Recently I wrote the Claims Conference to ask if they had the photograph from the fiftieth anniversary in Luxembourg. I still know the people there and it seemed promising. While I waited to hear back from my contact, I thought about the job I had there once. It was a job that I liked very much, with people who I really enjoyed. I was hired for a specific function and I was given a good office on the eighth floor looking out past Madison Square Park to lower Manhattan. But once much of the work was done there wasn’t enough for me to do or invent. One day it was so slow I wrote a short story. A little while after I left and moved to San Francisco to write.
When the email came back quickly saying that the Communications Director could not find the photo, it was clear to me that she didn’t look for it. I remember her and she remembers me, and that’s all there is to that. I wish I had it, though. You would see mostly older men in it, four rows of fifteen people or so, a few in their late thirties, and me. I was trying to get the neck badge off of me when the photographer snapped the shot, so I’m the one with my arms up who messes up the photo for everyone. If memory serves, Mr. Kagan is standing not too far from me. Or I am not too far from him.
The great Saul Kagan died last week. His work lives on in our love. When I finish crafting Inspiration Drive, he and many more of our dear hearts will be included in the story of that love.
If you’re one of the 250 backers of this project, thank you for continuing to show me your support in many important ways, large and small, quiet and vociferous, and for having faith in my vision. At the time of writing this there was nearly $3,300 left to fully fund this Kickstarter campaign: http://kck.st/1gntNMQ. That means 100 more books and we’re there. When you get the book, you become its audience and the project grows out of you, too.