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.”