Claims Conference staffers on the work they do, in their own words.
Elaine Schnall, staff attorney (formerly the director of the survivor services department), has worked at the Claims Conference on and off over the course of 15 years, and is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors.
During my first week at the Claims Conference, I was handed a huge pile of letters to read, for which responses needed to be given. I took them home, and I felt such a heaviness after having read through them. So much suffering had been recounted in those letters.
When you talk to survivors on the phone, and you really listen, you can hear them relax. They want to talk about all the good they have experienced and their life before and after the Holocaust. I have found it consistently gratifying to speak with survivors.
Lori Schuldiner Schor, social welfare program manager, has been on staff at the Claims Conference since 2009, and is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors.
I feel fulfilled by my work. We learn a lot in the field, and we do our best to bring that learning back to the office and to our work. In doing so, I believe that we’ve moved the dial on services that are available to Holocaust survivors.
During my home visits with clients, I’ve met bedridden survivors whose caregivers were only able to be there for five hours each day, five days per week. Since that was not enough coverage, the caregiver would position — near the client — a table with medication and a bottle of water, knowing that for the remaining 19 hours, the client would be alone and in bed. Observations such as that scene, plus a lot of advocacy, plus an ace negotiating team, have led to a substantial increase in home care. Knowing we are making this difference and that we continue to push for more means the world to me.
Tony Rodriguez, program officer in Shoah research, education and documentation (RED), has been with the Claims Conference for almost nine years.
On a recent visit to Poland, I joined a group of teachers from the United Kingdom for an educator-training program. None of these teachers were Jewish. As part of the program we visited the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, and like most others in Poland, it had been desecrated; many of the smaller tombstones had been taken and used to build roads and repair buildings. Despite my many visits to Holocaust-related sites, and being a witness to remnants of many historic wrongs, this raised an anger that I could not get over. And, to my surprise, I wasn’t the only one impacted. This group of teachers, from every corner of Britain, experienced the anger and pain I felt and what they were feeling moved me.
There’s something amazing about witnessing a group of people care about something they need not care about at all. I am in awe of these educators and the work they do to advance Holocaust education.
Jennifer Pierre, who works in survivor services, has been with the Claims Conference for three years.
I grew up in Haiti and survived the earthquake in 2010. That was my first experience in losing people. I can’t compare what I went through with what I hear every day from the survivors. They are so positive, and really inspire you. I spoke with an 87-year-old who was still going skiing, and we shared a moment as we were going over his application. The main thing I got from him was to always have faith, to keep pushing, to keep going and never stop.
I was raised in a culture where you have to respect the elders. I have learned a lot from my colleagues about making a difference.
Erica Fishbein is the program officer for social welfare and RED grants to institutions in the former Soviet Union. She has worked for the Claims Conference for six years, and is the granddaughter of survivors.
We experience huge contrasts in this job. When we go on site visits it can be both depressing and uplifting. Depressing, because I meet survivors in the former Soviet Union who often live in extremely difficult conditions of poverty and are often alone. Uplifting, because of the remarkable work being done by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Hesed agencies we are funding who have become their caretakers, and also because it’s an incredible honor to meet survivors in the most intimate setting — their homes.
I work with Russian-speaking Café Europa groups in Brooklyn, and it has been wonderful to build relationships with them. I get very attached to the members of these groups, whom I have gotten to know over the years. But I have seen many members and heads of these organizations get very ill or pass away. I have seen survivor organizations fold when the leader passes away as no one else can take their place. I hear the tremor in the voices of the leaders of these groups and hear day to day how their condition is worsening. Someone in our department just lost a relative who was a survivor. I recently lost my grandfather who was a survivor. It is something we live with in our work.
Charles Rose, who works in the social welfare department as a senior program officer, works in Eastern Europe and South America and has been at the Claims Conference for almost 17 years.
I’ve made lots of home visits and have seen the remains of what were once magnificent Jewish communities but today are no more. I met a woman in Brazil whose husband witnessed firsthand the massacre in Jedwabne, Poland, when Jews were rounded up by their neighbors and burned in a synagogue. I met a man who survived nine concentration camps and when he was liberated, he weighed so little that he was taken by Russian troops to Stalin for him to see the extent of the atrocities that had been committed under the Nazi regime. When I first met one woman in Bulgaria seven years ago, she was living under very difficult circumstances at home with a disabled son. I informed her that she was eligible for our homecare program, and she had no interest. I tried to convince her how much this program would help her and that if she didn’t take these funds available to her, the money would be returned to Germany. After much persuasion she finally agreed to try it. A few years later, she was excited to invite me to her home, and she said that she couldn’t imagine her life without the homecare assistance she was receiving.
Life is difficult for survivors as they are very poor, isolated, often ailing — both physically and mentally — and worst of all, a good number have outlived their children. Fortunately our staff supports each other with this work. The effects of it are with me at all times. I oftentimes find myself asking: how would my life have played out 75 years ago had I been living in Europe, when every single decision, no matter how mundane, could mean the difference between survival and death?
We help survivors who are amazingly resilient individuals and who are appreciative of every form of assistance they receive; and at the same time there at those who suffered such deep loss and trauma that nothing we do will make their lives whole again. We want to do all that is possible to assist those who have suffered so much and yet, no matter how much we help, we can’t possibly meet all of their needs. We cannot replace their lost families, childhood and basic faith in society. I struggle daily with this empty feeling.
Eric Thomason, project manager, has been at the Claims Conference for 17 years.
Growing up in Northern Minnesota, the only Jewish person I knew was the church secretary. We learned about the Holocaust in school but the thought never crossed my mind that there were survivors.
When I came to New York City I got a job at the Claims Conference and suddenly was in the presence of survivors, the ones that worked there, and the ones that were clients and visited the office.
In my early years I often interacted with the board members, a number of whom were survivors. There were a few that were heroes to some of us in the office — their war experience, their post-war life, the rebuilding of their lives and then, in their later years, what they were doing for others. But then they began to pass — some of the greats — and it was hard. They were really good to me and I admired them quite a bit and when they were gone it took a while until I realized there weren’t really any others coming to replace them and the ones who were left were all that we have.