By Deb Kram
I’m sitting in yet another airport terminal, waiting to board my flight after presenting to and meeting with local survivors of the Holocaust. With a soft fluttering of wings, I notice a bird perched, not far, on the back of one of the seats. Smiling, I wonder to myself, will the bird accompany me down the jet bridge?
I am privileged to have served these past five plus years as the Client Outreach Manager for the Claims Conference. It has been my task to bring current information on programs benefiting survivors at social programs, primarily those run with support of the Café Europa grant. While the Claims Conference has clients worldwide in 83 different countries and territories, I travel to appear throughout the United States and Canada, and have virtually connected on Skype with survivor groups in Australia and the United Kingdom, as well as with smaller groups in the U.S.
In 2017, the Claims Conference distributed 359.4 million dollars in direct payments to survivors and 433 million dollars funding social services for survivor care. It’s my goal to both lend a presence and listening ear for the Claims Conference in service of the myriads of clients I interact with, and make clear what funding is currently available. In this way I fulfill my role as part of the Claims Conference overall mission of bringing survivors a small measure of justice.
Because of my frequent travel, I often introduce myself to my audiences as the “Wandering Jew.” This moniker, which usually draws smiles and chuckles, was once publicly disputed by a member of my audience, who claimed that his wartime experience on the run had him in more places than I’ll ever know. No argument from me. He can own the title. After all, when my work-related visit has concluded, I thankfully have a home base and community to which I can freely return, air travel delays and cancellations notwithstanding, and replenish my mental energies before my next adventure.
The groups I have addressed have been as large as 500 and as intimate as a dozen. They have been held everywhere from wedding halls in Brooklyn, to conference rooms in a Las Vegas casino, to social service agency meeting rooms and JCC auditoriums, and, most often, to synagogue social halls. I have attended a wide variety of programming, including live musical entertainment, guest speakers, slide shows, movies, documentaries, and concert tapes, instruction for laughing yoga, art and photography displays, and somewhat remarkably, often plenty of spirited dancing by the clients.
The dancing, no matter how many times I see it, still captivates me. Whether a spirited hora, or a twirl around the floor in a partner’s arms, the dancing embodies the resilience, joy, and life force of the gathered survivors.
A wide variety of meals or refreshments are served, from a simple plate of cookies and rugelach with coffee, to boxed lunches, to more elaborate buffets and multi-course catered meals, depending on the variety of funding sources available to each group. It is quite common to see the clients unabashedly packing up their food, no matter how elaborate or simple, to take home with them.
Some events have attendees sit at tables designated by their countries or regions of origin. Even at events without designation, I have witnessed groups that self segregate. Some groups have name tags to enable introductions and conversation. Smaller gatherings have had each person stand and say who they are and from where they originally hail.
Occasionally, there is tension expressed in words or displayed in body language at the cultural differences and varied wartime experiences, particularly between survivors of Western Europe and those who survived in the East. Not all clients exhibit an understanding of the common enemy who brought on their particular wartime suffering.
I’ve seen clients closely attended to by a variety of people, including their peers, agency professionals, community volunteers, and local day school students. At some survivor run socialization programs, they manage the event logistics on their own accord.
One agency notably invited local public high school seniors enrolled in Advanced Placement History to join the survivors for lunch. The student body was multi-cultural, with most students being either first or second generation immigrants themselves. It took a few minutes to break the ice, but then the hum of conversation, and the sharing of respective stories of building new lives grew stronger.
Many events begin with the somber reading of the names of their members who have died since the previous gathering.
My formal presentation varies depending on the latest developments in the field, news of which I follow with care. I will always mention the parameters of the current compensation programs offered through the Claims Conference in North America, namely the Article 2 Fund, the Hardship Fund, and, since 2015, the Child Survivor Fund. I emphasize the broadening categories of eligibility for Article 2 applicants. I’ve also been able to make known information about the Polish government pension, the U.S.-administered French Railway settlement, Warsaw property restitution, as well as Czech Republic payments, among other timely and relevant programs and issues of relevant interest.
Sensitive to the audience and time of year, I occasionally choose to open my remarks with a comment on the next Jewish holiday approaching before launching into disseminating information about funding. This introduction helps connect me to the assembled crowd and hopefully puts everyone somewhat at ease before the nuts and bolts of my presentation.
Following my formal remarks to audiences, I generally adjourn to an adjacent space, preferably with privacy, if available, and speak with as many individuals as possible who have personal inquiries. Some agencies set up numerous client appointments for me in advance, in addition to inquiries from clients that arise from my talk. I am able resolve some of their questions on the spot, while others require input either from my Claims Conference colleagues in Survivor Services, from sponsoring social service agencies, or referrals to German government offices or regional consular staff. Occasionally, clients are referred to the Claims Conference Ombudswoman.
I have met countless people with incredible stories who have deeply impacted my sense of self. Their narratives consist of vital and painful aspects of our collective history. Occasionally tears are shed, preventing the client from immediately sharing their concerns. I quickly assure them that they can follow up afterwards more calmly by phone, if they so choose.
There are clients with no immediate inquiries, but who want to share their stories nonetheless, others who proudly declare that they speak to school groups, or are active with Witness Theater, or even a client who wanted to be sure I knew that she was included in a Frederick Wiseman documentary.
My contact information is shared widely, with friends, neighbors and relatives, at my urging. I assure my audiences that people do not have to have meet me in order to call or email and ask a question. This suggestion was particularly successful among survivors of the Kindertransport. As a result of having presented to a group of child survivors, my contact information was printed in the international newsletter, Kinderlink, bringing Hardship Fund inquiries via email and phone from around the globe.
I file written reports on all of my visits and share them with select colleagues at the Claims Conference. These reports offer feedback from the field, and highlight descriptions of select individuals indicating how our organization can or has either assisted them, or, in some cases, have not.
Each individual encounter I have is entered into our internal office systems, either for continued attention to client inquiries by Survivor Services Department staff as necessary, or simply recorded for closure. As I am neither involved in processing applications nor in any appeals process, most of my connection to individuals end after I have met them, and/or carefully listened to them, and recorded their inquiries. Unlike case managers, no ongoing relationship is formed. From time to time however, I receive an acknowledgement of thanks from clients made aware of a particular fund through their contact with me, and whose applications have met with success. One referred client, who had called me numerous times, came over to introduce herself and her husband to me at a Café Europa, excited for me to match her face with her name. Generally though, each day, each presentation, each call, brings a new client to my attention.
I have been reluctant to share more than a glimmer of client portraits more publicly, until solicited to write this article. I have encountered thousands of faces, each with a story to tell. With the passage of time, many clients’ memories have faded. In the few vignettes that follow, I offer to share a few poignant moments, while shielding the clients’ identity.
A woman of a certain age enters the room to speak to me. From her outward appearance and demeanor, I anticipate that she is the adult daughter of survivors, come to ask a question on their behalf. But no, my first impression is mistaken. She is a Nazi victim herself, miraculously hidden as an infant at the end of the war in horrific circumstances within a concentration camp, the youngest survivor I have yet to meet. Having been born myself in the early 1950s, I chill to realize that she is, practically speaking, of my generation. The distance that I imagined that existed between myself and my clients evaporates.
A woman enters the room adjacent to the Café Europa ready to do battle. She is angry to have been deemed ineligible for Claims Conference funded home care assistance following surgery because of her refusal to disclose her income. “Did Hitler ask to see my W-2 forms,” she challenges, “before he took away my family?” Her outrage over her wartime loss is justified, but given the choice between receiving funding from the German government to care for needy survivors, or receiving no funding for this vital purpose at all, I reconcile the limited income threshold for requested home care services. This time there is no placating this woman, but I reasonably explain the background and realities of delicate negotiation for these crucial funds. I listen most empathetically, but no words can smooth away her upset.
A woman quietly tells me her story before asking her question about compensation. She had served in Israel’s air force after the war and met her husband, also a survivor, who served in Israel’s navy prior to living in America. When she discovers I speak Hebrew, she relishes the opportunity to continue our consultation in Hebrew together, and I notice her mood and demeanor are visibly uplifted.
A man enters the room slowly, using his walker. When he sits down and tells me his name, I am startled because I know him, but have failed to recognize him. We had not crossed paths in quite some time. He is a long cherished landsman and friend of my deceased former father-in-law, who experienced and survived the horrors of the war together, and faced the challenges of rebuilding their lives anew afterwards. I gently ask him if he had heard mention of my name when I was previously introduced to speak, and he confessed that he did not. I take out my business card and gently reveal to him who I am. He had come in to complain that I had not offered any news about benefits specifically for Latvian survivors, but after letting him know who I was, he waved that complaint aside. Our emotions run high as we briefly reminisce about our families. I don’t lose sight of the opportunity to respond to his complaint, and tell him about successful efforts in retrieving monies for select Jewish communal Latvian properties, which will benefit the remaining Jewish community in Latvia.
A survivor’s husband identifies himself as not being Jewish. His uncle had saved his Jewish wife’s life when she was an adolescent by offering her shelter from the town’s invading Nazis, as his “niece.” He tells me about enduring life in their village during the war, and asked about possible benefits for his own forced labor as a teenager. I confess that I do not know, and suggest contacting his native country’s consulate, where he might investigate further.
A woman introduces herself with a strongly identified Christian name, but knowing that the Claims Conference compensation programs are open to only to Jewish victims of the Nazis, she reassures me that she is a member of the tribe. Her mother had hidden her as a baby in a convent. The nuns accepted her on the condition that the baby would be baptized, and should the mother survive the war, that the child be raised as a Catholic. Her mother survived the war and kept the promise. The woman did not discover that she was Jewish until she came to America some years later as an adult after seeking out relatives. Though we had previously never met, I felt as if I knew this woman’s story, as her childhood narrative echoed my school teachers’ lessons about the Holocaust.
A few years have passed since I began my travels. I circulate among the tables at a Café Europa venue I had not visited previously. As clients were settling in, I introduce myself to a familiar looking face. “Have we met before?” I queried. “No,” she responds. As we chat, she discovers I live in New England and becomes excited. When she immigrated to America, her boat from Germany arrived in my hometown, greeted by photographers and news reporters. She had never seen if she was actually written up, as HIAS representatives whisked her onto a train to New York that same day. How could I resist the chance to find out what made it to print? I offered to follow up for her, with a few clicks online. While taking down her personal information to conduct the search, I quickly come to realize she is the same person who spoke the phrase that has long haunted me concerning Hitler and the W-2 forms. I am delighted, a few days later, to call her and share links to articles I discovered, which documented the story of her ship’s arrival on American shores.
“Don’t forget me.”
This is a phrase that is repeated to me by clients countless times.
How can one forget listening to the client I met out West, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto, who had let young imagination escape into the frontier through a book about Buffalo Bill, before being shipped to Auschwitz?
How can one forget sitting with a couple, following the story the husband told of a young boy on the run with his parents, hiding in a pit under the straw of a barn floor for months on end, and then hearing the story from his wife about a young girl, whose forced labor had been to weave straw into boot insoles for German soldiers?
How can one forget meeting the gentleman, now a retired U.S. Armed Forces officer, who shared that as a young boy, both he and his mother were passengers on the S.S. St. Louis, the ill-fated ship of refugees that was refused to safe harbor either in Cuba, as was planned, or in the United States and Canada. His father had already been deported in Germany. He had the good fortune of being allowed to disembark in England, while so many others on board were sent to their death upon their return to Germany.
How can one forget the description of the final days in April, 1945, the incarceration in Buchenwald of an inmate who lived to see liberation, who expressed in Hebrew, “O nes, o mes” – either a miracle, or death – was the certain fate that awaited him. Luckily, a miracle.
At the Passover seder, we recite the following Mishnaic words from the Haggadah’s timeless text, its meaning must resonate deeply with survivors:
In every generation it is one’s duty to regard oneself as though one personally had left Egypt.
“No,” I assure the clients who sit by my side, “you will not be forgotten.”
 I welcome inquiries from readers as well. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; voicemail:646-519-8705
 To read about the Righteous Gentile program funded first funded by the Claims Conference at its founding in 1963: http://www.claimscon.org/what-we-do/allocations/social/the-righteous-gentiles-program/
 See previous footnote.