Survivor Polina Kalacheva getting assistance at the Holocaust Reparations Clinic held at the Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center in Rogers Park on July 24
In 1943, Edith Stern of Chicago and her parents were forced to leave their home and transported to Terezin (The "Ghetto Theresienstadt") a Nazi-controlled ghetto. There, she worked as a nurse, lived in tight quarters and overcame severe illness, but she was lucky enough to survive and get married. On Sept. 28, 1944, all the men, including her husband, were taken to what they thought were labor camps in Germany. So when the opportunity arose for her mother and her to join them, they eagerly boarded the train. When they instead arrived at Auschwitz, Stern’s mother was sent straight to the gas chambers, but she, having maintained her strength living the ghetto, passed the selection and was sent to a labor camp. Soon after, she discovered—as did the Nazis—that she was pregnant, and was on her way to the gas chambers in Auschwitz when the camp was liberated by the Russians in May of 1945.
Though she had lost her parents, husband and unborn child, Stern persevered, eventually coming to Chicago and starting a family. Having survived through so much, Stern does not let much stop her. But when she needed hearing aids and could not afford them, she knew she needed help. It was then that she noticed a bulletin board ad for new compensation available to survivors. She called Chicago’s Holocaust Community Services (HCS), filled out the application and qualified to receive just over $3,000. And for Stern, this reparation money represented a world of difference.
“It means a lot,” Stern says, adding that despite her hearing problems she is otherwise very healthy. “I could not afford to get the hearing aids before, but now I have them. I was also able to get gifts for my grandchildren.”
Representatives of three major law firms are joining HCS in an effort to locate and assist Holocaust survivors, like Stern, who worked in Nazi-run ghettos and are eligible for new compensation made available by the German government.
Survivors eligible for The German Government Ghetto Labor Compensation Fund include those who were forced to live in a ghetto under Nazi control and who were employed “without coercion” during this time. The fund, established in October of 2007, ensures a one-time payment 2,000 Euros (approximately $3,000), to those who qualify and apply.
This project originated internationally with the Los Angeles-based Bet Tzedek Legal Services, which inspired firms with offices all over the country and throughout the world to join together and localize the effort. In Chicago, HCS—a joint effort of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, Jewish Child and Family Services (JCFS), CJE Senior Life and HIAS Chicago—had already located and secured compensation for several hundred survivors, but according to HCS director Audrey Cantor, they were still looking to find others.
Determined to contribute to Bet Tzedek’s effort, locate more eligible survivors in Chicago and support HCS, representatives from three Chicago law firms—McDermott, Will & Emory, DLA Piper US and Winston & Strawn—came together in May to gauge interest from their attorneys and other firms, and come up with a game plan. They pooled their resources and arranged for clinics to be held throughout the Chicago metropolitan area, where survivors could come in with their applications, share their stories and receive free legal services.
“To date we have had several test clinics as we are trying to get the clinics established,” says Latonia Keith, Pro Bono and Community Service Counsel for McDermott, Will & Emory. “The goal of the lawyers is to make sure that survivors receive payment or are rejected on legitimate grounds.”
The application can be “deceptively simple,” according to Anne Geraghty, Pro Bono manager for DLA Piper US. “So it’s really important that lawyers be involved,” she says. All the attorneys involved go through specific training and are instructed to stay in contact with their clients following the clinics.
As of 2001, there were approximately 6,000 survivors living in Chicago, and Geraghty says she was surprised by the number of survivors living under the poverty line, noting the importance of helping as many survivors as possible.
But while Stern was quick to share her amazing story and fill out the application, other survivors may not want to evoke memories these tragic memories from their past.
“For some the ghetto was just the first step,” says Cantor, noting that many survivors prefer to say “I’m not going back.”
“We’re really asking someone to relive painful details of their lives,” says Allison Zirn, of DLA Piper US. “It’s a tremendous human interest. We’re helping people that are extremely needy.”
This effort is especially important to Zirn on a personal level because her father, who passed away just last year, was a liberator during World War II.
“He told stories, he showed pictures, but he never wanted to be considered heroic,” she said. “When there’s that need you do anything you can to help the survivors.”
“No one in Chicago has been rejected yet,” Cantor says, noting that as a result of locating new survivors, HCS has also been able to provide them with additional services. “We’re winding down as survivors are getting older.”
“We’re really dealing with living history that’s quickly no longer going to be here anymore,” added Zirn.
Gregory McConnell, Pro Bono Counsel for Winston & Strawn, said finding survivors still remains their biggest challenge. There are a total of 15 firms involved on some level, each with the potential for 30 to 50 volunteers each, and yet they don’t have the numbers of survivors to fill the clinics.
“It’s really great that [these attorneys] get to go out [to centers and clinics] and really spend the afternoon,” McConnell said. “It really instills the notion of what lawyers can do to help people.”
If you or someone you know might be eligible, or for more information, call Holocaust Community Services at (847) 568-5151.