Just who were the Kagans?

Joseph Kagan was a Jewish textile manufacturer, born in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1915. He came to England in 1933 to study textiles at Leeds University, but travelled home to visit his family when Stalin invaded Lithuania in 1940 and was trapped there for the remainder of the war.

The Soviets took possession of the family textile mill and Kagan described his time under the Soviets as being like a commando training camp for life under the Germans.

Lady Margaret Kagan

In 1941, when Hitler invaded, the game was up, and he was herded into the ghetto. He survived for two years, living on a combination of his wits and good fortune, and in 1943 he met and married Margaret Stromas.

As the ghetto was about to be reclassified as a concentration camp he built a hiding place for himself, Margaret, and his mother in the attic of the foundry where he was a slave labourer. They survived the remainder of the war in hiding.

Joseph and Margaret's daughter, artist Jenny Kagan, has created a special exhibition to bring the stories her parents told her about their fight for survival to life.

Out of Darkness, at Dean Clough, Halifax, from May 7 to July 10, uses images, music projection and structures to tell her parents' story. Watch a special trailer for the exhibition above.

When the Russians re-occupied Lithuania in 1944 Kagan and his young bride set off across country in an attempt to re-join his family in England. They were eventually taken in by the British Consulate in Bucharest and, in the summer of 1946, made it to England.

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He settled in West Yorkshire and initially manufactured rough blankets from a Nissen hut near Huddersfield under the name of Kagan Textiles Limited. From these humble beginnings the company went on to employ over 1,000 workers and occupied a large mill at Elland manufacturing a fabric called ‘Gannex’ – a lightweight wool and nylon material used to make raincoats famously worn by Harold Wilson, Prince Philip, Lyndon Johnson and Mao Tse-tung.

Kagan was made a life peer in Wilson’s 1976 controversial resignation honours’ list. However in 1979 warrants were issued for the arrest of both Lord Kagan and his wife, alleging conspiracy to defraud the public revenue and falsify records. Kagan was found guilty, fined £375,000 and served a 10-month sentence in prison. His knighthood was annulled but Kagan reappeared in the House of Lords after leaving prison and campaigned on penal reform until his death in 1995.

His wife was born in Latvia in 1924 to a high born Russian mother and an educated Lithuanian father who became economic counsellor to the Lithuanian embassy.

Lord Kagan

Margaret married Joseph in 1943 and they survived the Holocaust, but her both her parents lost their lives. Her father, George, was beaten to death in the first days after the German invasion and her mother, Eugenia, was deported to Stutthof Concentration Camp in Poland in July 1944 where she took her own life four months later. Margaret and Joseph travelled to West Yorkshire and from 1965 the family lived at Delamare, Fixby for 30 years, until Joseph’s death in 1995 when Lady Kagan moved to Bradley.

They also bought Barkisland Hall in 1967 for corporate entertaining. The hall has recently been on the market for £2m.

Margaret was a highly intelligent woman, who spoke five languages fluently and also held a pilot’s licence – although her navigation skills were said to be ‘dreadful’ – it was claimed that she would find her way by flying low over towns so that she could see the colour of the buses.

She died in 2013.

A special exhibition on the Kagans —Out of Darkness by Jenny Kagan — runs from May 7 to July 10 at Dean Clough, Halifax.