When Roman Blum died last year at age 97, his body lingered in the Staten Island University Hospital morgue for four days, until a rabbi at the hospital was able to track down his lawyer.
Mr. Blum, a Holocaust survivor and real estate developer, left behind no heirs and no surviving family members — his former wife died in 1992 and the couple was childless. His funeral, held graveside at the New Montefiore Jewish Cemetery in West Babylon, N.Y., was attended by a small number of mourners, most of them elderly fellow survivors or children of survivors.
Much about Mr. Blum’s life was shrouded in mystery: He always claimed he was from Warsaw, although many who knew him said he actually came from Chelm, in southeast Poland. Several people close to Mr. Blum said that before World War II, in Poland, he had a wife and child who perished in the Holocaust, though Mr. Blum seems never to have talked of them, and the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany, has no record of them in its database.
Even his birth date is in question. Records here give it as Sept. 16, 1914; identity cards from a German displaced persons camp have it as Sept. 15.
But perhaps the greatest mystery surrounding Mr. Blum is why a successful developer, who built hundreds of houses around Staten Island and left behind an estate valued at almost $40 million, would die without a will.
That is no small matter, as his is the largest unclaimed estate in New York State history, according to the state comptroller’s office.
“He was a very smart man but he died like an idiot,” said Paul Skurka, a fellow Holocaust survivor who befriended Mr. Blum after doing carpentry work for him in the 1970s.
Gary D. Gotlin, the public administrator handling the case, sold Mr. Blum’s home on Staten Island, auctioned off his jewelry and his furniture and is putting other properties that he owned on the market. Mr. Gotlin’s office, which is overseen by Surrogate’s Court in Richmond County, is also using Mr. Blum’s estate to pay his taxes, conduct an in-depth search for a will and hire a genealogist to search for relatives. If none are identified, the money will pass into the state’s coffers. That, Mr. Blum’s friends said, would be a tragedy, compounding the one that befell him as a young man in Eastern Europe.
“I spoke to Roman many times before he passed away, and he knew what to do, how to name beneficiaries,” said Mason D. Corn, his accountant and friend for 30 years. “Two weeks before he died, I had finally gotten him to sit down. He saw the end was coming. He was becoming mentally feeble. We agreed. I had to go away, and so he told me, ‘O.K., when you come back I will do it.’ But by then it was too late. We came this close, but we missed the boat.”
Roman Blum was, by all accounts, an emotional man with a large personality. Six feet tall and handsome, he was a ladies’ man, a gambler and a drinker. He was also enterprising and tough in business.
“He had deeds on his desk piled up to the ceiling of properties he owned,” said Vincent Daino, who was Mr. Blum’s neighbor for 25 years and became his unpaid driver when the older man’s eyesight began to fail. “There were royalties from oil rigs in Alaska, money from his stocks — about once a month he would have me drive him to the bank so he could deposit $100,000 checks.”
Much of what is known about his life comes from a circle of fellow Holocaust survivors who met in displaced persons camps after the war.
They said that when war broke out, Mr. Blum was in Poland and, fearing capture, ran alone across the border to Russia, where he was briefly detained and placed in prison. The Russians soon released him along with thousands of other prisoners to fight the Nazis. The fate of his wife and child, if they existed, is unclear.
In the months after the war, Mr. Blum met a family of survivors with two daughters. One of them, Eva, had been in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
He married her, although by all accounts it was not a love match. “It was immediately after the war — he thought she was the last Jewish woman alive, and she thought there were no more men,” said a friend and fellow Holocaust survivor who met Mr. Blum around that time. The friend would speak only anonymously, for fear that he would seem to be trying to make a claim on the Blum estate.
In 1946, Mr. and Mrs. Blum made their way to Zeilsheim, a displaced persons camp on the outskirts of Frankfurt. In the chaos of postwar Germany, Mr. Blum became a smuggler, as many Jews did, Mr. Skurka said: He pirated cigarettes into Belgium while biding his time waiting for a visa to the United States. During that period, Eva remained in Zeilsheim and Mr. Blum preferred the livelier Berlin.
Mr. Skurka related a story from those days that, he said, Mr. Blum had told him. One day while in Berlin, Mr. Blum walked into a barbershop and asked the proprietor for a shave. When the barber finished, Mr. Blum said he had no money, shrugging his shoulders and smiling as he walked out the door. “He had chutzpah, that’s the kind of man he was,” Mr. Skurka said.
In 1949, the Blums came to New York and settled in Forest Hills, in Queens. There, they joined a tightknit community of survivors, many of whom they knew from the Zeilsheim camp.
“They all lived the same type of lifestyle, going to the bungalow colonies together, the Catskills, everything was done as a group,” said Jack Shnay, a child of survivors who grew up in Forest Hills with the Blums. “Initially, they all lived in apartments in Rego Park; then they starting buying or building private homes.”
“Every weekend was a party,” said Charles Goldgrub, the child of survivors and Mr. Blum’s godson, who also grew up in Queens. “They had survived Hitler so they thought they would live forever.”
On weekends, the survivors would often gather to play high-stakes poker and drink plum brandy. They rarely discussed their wartime experiences, but sometimes, as a group and tipsy, they would grow emotional. Mr. Blum’s favorite tune was the 1968 single by Mary Hopkin, “Those Were The Days,” recalled Michael Pomeranc, a hotelier who grew up in Forest Hills and whose parents, also survivors, were close to the Blums. “He was always singing that song, and especially if he’d had a bit to drink, he’d try to get everyone to join in with the lyrics,” Mr. Pomeranc said.
Many of the men started businesses together, the majority becoming homebuilders and hotel developers. They referred to themselves as griners, a Yiddish term meaning greenhorn or newcomer. “They were known as the griner builders,” said Robert Fishler, a Staten Island real estate lawyer who represented Mr. Blum for nearly three decades.
The men also had affairs. “There were lots of women on the side,” Mr. Goldgrub said. “It was a way of life, everyone knew — the wives just closed their eyes to it.” By many accounts, Mr. Blum often had female companions other than his wife. “It was really more like growing up in the Italian mob than your typical Jewish upbringing,” Mr. Goldgrub said.
While the people in the group liked having fun, they were not showy, despite their growing wealth. Most drove the same Buicks and Oldsmobiles for years and remained in the same middle-class neighborhood. Their modesty might also have been a desire to keep their wealth under wraps. “They didn’t want anyone to know what they had. They had been so scrutinized they didn’t want to call attention to themselves,” Mr. Goldgrub said.
The Blums struggled to start a family. Mrs. Blum told her friends that she was unable to have children, and the couple spent thousands of dollars on doctors’ visits. According to stories that swirled around the couple, Mrs. Blum had been a subject of the dreaded Dr. Josef Mengele while at Auschwitz, and his experiments had rendered her infertile.
In the 1960s, on a five-week trip to Israel on the Queen Elizabeth, Mr. Blum found a boy, an orphan, whom he wished to adopt. But friends who were with them said Mrs. Blum begged him not to go through with the adoption, convinced that her doctors would ultimately be able to help them conceive. They did not adopt the boy and never had children.
Then, in 1964, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened, linking Brooklyn and Staten Island, and many in the group, including Mr. Blum, began buying land on Staten Island. Prices were low, and Mr. Blum began developing land and building homes in neighborhoods like Eltingville, Huguenot and Manor Heights.
“Everybody knew Roman. He built hundreds of homes over the years,” Bruno Betro, a broker at Volpe Realty, said. “Last time I tried to sell a piece of property for him, I’d give him an offer and he’d tell me he wanted $1 million more.”
By the 1980s, with his business thriving, Mr. Blum decided to relocate to Staten Island. He built a large brick house in the upscale neighborhood of Southeast Annadale, with four bedrooms and five bathrooms, a two-car garage and a pool.
Mrs. Blum did not want to move. “He wanted her to go live with him in his big house with a swimming pool, but she loved the city,” said the friend who wished to be unidentified. “All her friends were there, and with his lifestyle, if she went with him, she knew she would be alone a lot.” Mrs. Blum stayed in Queens and Mr. Blum moved into the new house.
“Fifty years of marriage and he just left,” said Sherri Goldgrub, who married Charles Goldgrub in 1980 and knew the Blums well. “He would sometimes come back and bring her his laundry, but she sat home waiting, thinking he’d be back for dinner.”
The Blums eventually divorced, and Mr. Blum lived the life of a bachelor. There were women and lots of poolside parties. “Every Sunday we would swim in the pool, drink and eat — he’d like to make steaks this thick on the grill,” said his friend, holding his fingers five inches apart.
As for the group back in Queens, the divorce caused a rift and many distanced themselves from Mr. Blum.
“People were offended,” Mr. Goldgrub said. “People took sides, and our family took Eva’s side.” The last time Mr. Goldgrub saw Mr. Blum was at the bar mitzvah of his son in 1995. Mr. Blum was furious that he was not asked to light a candle for the boy, an honor, and told Mr. Goldgrub’s father he was taking his godson out of his will.
But Mr. Blum’s business on Staten Island was growing. Known as shrewd and hard driving, he could often be found early in the morning, cup of coffee in hand, sitting in the garage of one of his model homes, displaying sample materials and giving prospective buyers the hard sell.
As the years went by, Mr. Blum became increasingly stingy and, according to those who knew him, paranoid that people were after his fortune. He hid $40,000 in the ceiling of his bathroom, according to Mr. Daino, and when it went missing, Mr. Blum accused another neighbor of stealing it. “He told him, ‘Give me back $30,000 and I’ll let you keep $10,000,’ ” said Mr. Daino.
Months before he died, Mr. Blum fell down the stairs of his home and broke his leg, lying on the floor for four hours before a cleaning woman found him, according to Mr. Daino. It was Mr. Daino who took him to the hospital and who eventually signed him out.
“He had no one else, I was the only person he had,” Mr. Daino said. The leg never fully healed, and Mr. Blum, who remained at home in a hospital bed with 24-hour care, died in early January 2012.
After the hospital rabbi found his body in the morgue, he notified Mr. Fishler, the lawyer, who then notified Mr. Blum’s old friends from Queens. To the surprise of many, Mr. Blum had bought a cemetery plot next to his former wife’s. He was buried there.
“It is a heartbreaking story, a tragedy,” said Mr. Pomeranc, who was one of the few people who attended Mr. Blum’s funeral. “I spoke with him three days before he died. We were going to get the whole group together and take a ride out to see him that weekend. But it didn’t happen, and then the next week he passed away.”
None of Mr. Blum’s friends know why he never wrote a will. Those close to him say it may have been superstition or, after coming so close to dying during the war, a refusal to contemplate his own mortality. He may also have been unwilling to share the full details of his estate with a lawyer, the desire for secrecy a holdover from his experiences during the war.
Had the Blums had children, the estate would have gone to them, even without a will. While Mrs. Blum, as his former wife, would not have been eligible — only a current spouse or a blood relative can claim an inheritance in the absence of a will — his friends hope that Mr. Blum had siblings back in Poland with whom he was not in contact or that, if he had had a child before the war, some distant relations are still living in Europe.
“It wouldn’t be that uncommon to uncover collateral heirs,” said Burt Neuborne, the civil liberties defender who was the lead counsel in recent Holocaust litigation against Swiss banks. “We often found that someone, like a third cousin twice removed, would come forward.”
Yet despite a worldwide search that included Poland and Israel, Mr. Gotlin said, “to date, there is no evidence of any living relatives.”
Mr. Gotlin continues to work on liquidating Mr. Blum’s estate. According to people familiar with his accounts, Mr. Blum had about $4 million in cash in his checking account. His house was put on the market for $729,000 and is now in contract, and an eight-acre parcel he owned on Forest Avenue, worth about $4.5 million, is also in contract. A safe deposit box had more than 70 $100 bills, coins from Canada and South Africa, and gold jewelry including a watch, a bracelet, cuff links, several necklaces and a ring.
Mr. Blum’s few remaining personal items, including photographs and a book on the Holocaust, have been put in a box in the basement of the public administrator, where they will remain sealed unless claimed by a blood relative.
Once Mr. Gotlin completes liquidating the assets, and if investigators fail to find a will or surviving kin, whatever money is remaining from Mr. Blum’s estate will be passed to the city’s Department of Finance. If, after three years, no one comes forward, the money would go to the state comptroller’s office of unclaimed funds, which has $12 billion in its accounts dating to 1943. That office keeps a portion of the estate and transfers a portion to the state’s general fund. If an heir comes forward, the entire amount is returned.
The last time his old friend from Zeilsheim saw him, the man pushed Mr. Blum to discuss the topic of a will. “I told him, ‘Look, I know you don’t want to talk about it, but’ — and he was already a little bit drunk — I said, ‘You have to do something,’ ” the friend said. “And he told me, he said, ‘I promise you, if anything happens to me, you are going to be proud. You’ll be proud of me.’ ”
The friend still clings to hope. “I believe a will is written,” the friend said. “Somewhere there is a plan: he made arrangements to use the money to build a home for children and to dedicate it to his child from before the war. I am sure of it.”