Margaret Kagan

Lady Kagan: Well known for her interest in helping cement relations between communities, she had a deep interest in people.  Picture: Gerard Binks
Lady Kagan: Well known for her interest in helping cement relations between communities, she had a deep interest in people. Picture: Gerard Binks
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THE wife of one of this country’s most flamboyant tycoons has died, aged 86. Margaret Kagan was married to Lord Kagan, the late textile magnate, for more than 40 years.

She died at her home in Bradley, Huddersfield, on Thursday after being diagnosed with lung cancer more than a year ago.

Joseph Kagan became a close friend of Prime Minister Harold Wilson after making his name with Gannex raincoats and creating a multi-million pound empire. He was knighted, and then ennobled, by Mr Wilson.

However, he suffered a fall from grace in 1979 after being accused of tax evasion and was jailed for 10 months. But, although this was deeply embarrassing and upsetting for the family, it did not compare to their almost unimaginable travails when earlier in their lives they had survived the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Lithuania.

The couple had met by chance in the Kaunas Ghetto and he was immediately captivated by this charming, beautiful, gentle-looking young woman. She was slim and slightly taller than him.

Irena Veisaite, a first cousin and childhood friend, remembers how the couple met. She said: “I am very proud that I introduced her to Joseph.

“He invited me to listen to his latest classical records on the gramophone – he was one of the very few people in the ghetto to possess such a thing.

“Food was in very short supply in the camp and he gave me a little sausage which was quite a delicacy then. I told Mara (Margaret) and when I was invited again I said to Mara: ‘Let’s go again – maybe we will get another sausage!’”

Their romance blossomed as she became fascinated by “this extraordinary human being”.

Conditions in the ghetto were dreadful, but thanks to Joseph Kagan’s highly tuned antennae, he quickly realised their only chance of survival was to escape.

With the help of a Lithuanian non-Jew, Vytautas Rinkevicius, who risked his life to save them, they lived in a small box in a factory attic, along with Joseph’s mother Mira, just outside the ghetto walls for nine months.

It was an unusual and inevitably strained start to married life given their proximity to the difficult and emotional Mira. As Lady Kagan later wryly noted: “It was certainly a honeymoon with a difference.”

With the Nazis in full retreat and the war coming to an end, the couple made their way to Bucharest and from there to England where Kagan’s entrepreneurial brilliance soon saw him making his mark on the West Yorkshire textile landscape.

After initially sharing a house in Bradford, the couple settled in Huddersfield in 1946 and in 1951 he invented Gannex and their clothing began to appear on world leaders and royalty.

But Lady Kagan was far more interested in people than in any kind of social grandeur and became very well-known for her interest in helping cement relations between communities. In 1975, she was chairman of the Kirklees International Festival with a particular involvement in the borough’s West Indian community.

The couple had three children – Michael, 60, who lives in Israel; Daniel, 58, who lives in America and Jenny, 45, who lives in Kendal.

When Lady Kagan came to live in Yorkshire, she studied at Leeds University for a degree in Russian and was delighted at the friendliness she encountered.

A talented linguist, she could speak a dozen languages including German, French, Polish and Russian. She was also a qualified pilot but admitted her navigation skills were limited and she used to fly low so she could see the insignia of the town’s buses in order to know where she was.

A director of Kagan Textiles until it was recently wound up, she also spent 10 years in the United States from 1981. Initially she tried her hand at selling vacuum cleaners but failed to sell one and was sacked for her trouble. She had better luck as a Boston tour guide.

Margarita (Mara) Shtromaite was born on July 12, 1924, in Riga, Latvia, and grew up in Kaunas. Her parents lived a secular, cosmopolitan lifestyle and she was one of the few Jewish students who attended her high school.

Her funeral service will be held at 1pm at Huddersfield Town Hall on Friday followed by burial at Rose Hill Burial Ground, Huddersfield.