In Memoriam, Prof. Rachel Kahn-Hut, 4/3/2020

Professor Emeritus Rachel Kahn-Hut pictured in front of her Oakland home.

Retired Sociology Professor
Shares Holocaust Settlement

Becoming $65,000 richer overnight sounds like cause for celebration. It wasn't quite that way for Rachel Kahn-Hut, a professor emerita at San Francisco State.

The money was Kahn-Hut's share of a $1.25 billion landmark settlement between Swiss banks and Holocaust victims and survivors. Kahn-Hut's paternal grandfather was a German Jew who stashed a small amount of money in two Swiss bank accounts as the Nazis rose to power. In the late 1950s, her father, Edgar Kahn-Hut, tried to retrieve the money to no avail.

Like thousands of other Nazi victims and their heirs, Kahn-Hut filed a claim for restitution in the 1990s. But when the money finally arrived this year, she was not entirely comfortable with it. "There was a little bit of a feeling that this was benefiting from the Holocaust," she explained.

So the retired sociologist figured out a course of action that worked for her conscience as well as her pocketbook.

With $20,000, she set up the Generation to Generation Graduate School Award at San Francisco State's Department of Sociology, where she taught for three decades. Established in memory of her late mother, Caroline Rosen, the award will help undergraduates and alumni with the costs of applying to graduate school. With another $8,500, she created the Department of Sociology Kahn-Hut Lecture Fund to bring speakers and educational events to the department.

Kahn-Hut kept the rest for herself. She's remodeling the bathroom in her Oakland home and enjoys having a little extra money in her pocket during her frequent trips abroad.

But even today, long after the events in Europe that set in motion her windfall, Kahn-Hut is still astonished at the way that world events and her family history are intertwined.

In the early 1930s, Edgar Kahn-Hut, an engineer, left inflation-wracked Germany to seek work in the Soviet Union. There he met and married Caroline, a Russian Jew who had spent time in the United States. Their bliss was short-lived; the Soviets arrested Edgar on suspicion of being a German spy -- a charge for which he would be fully exonerated -- and expelled Caroline, by then caring for 10-week-old Rachel.

Mother and daughter fled to Germany, where they remained for several months at the home of Edgar's father, Daniel, a retired physician. Daniel confided to Caroline that he had deposited money in Swiss bank accounts but said he later withdrew the funds. "He said he was a good German and when Hitler asked him to bring his money home to Germany, that's what he did," Kahn-Hut recalled her mother telling her.

With Edgar in a Soviet prison camp, Caroline took Rachel to the United States, first to New York and Arizona and later Los Angeles. Though Caroline was an experienced librarian, anti-semitism and the Red Scare made it difficult for her to find work; Rachel was able to attend college only with the help of scholarships. She graduated from Pomona College, going on to earn a master's from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Brandeis. She saw her father only twice; he remained in Russia, where he died in 1972.

In the 1990s, Jews began filing claims and class-action lawsuits to recover money they had put away for safekeeping in Swiss banks in the 1930s. Like Edgar, many account holders and heirs had tried to recover their assets without success; bankers often demanded documents that were impossible to obtain or had been lost during the war.

In 1998, after Swiss banks negotiated the $1.25 billion in restitution, Kahn-Hut's curiosity led her to a Web site that listed names of account holders. Surprisingly, her grandfather's name was there. Kahn-Hut surmised that he had left small amounts of money in the accounts in case he should need them again.

-- Anne Burke(link sends e-mail)