By Yonit Hoffman
Shika Kuperman celebrated two milestones this past spring. Though he says he is 107, he blew out candles on a cake which proclaimed his “official” birthday of 105 years old. The two-year discrepancy is not a reflection of the inevitably declining memory of a centenarian, but rather a common remnant of a life disrupted by the Holocaust.
Which brings us to Shika’s second milestone: a modicum of justice and recognition more than 75 years after that life was forever “disrupted” and changed. After seven decades, Shika will finally receive compensation from what is jarringly referred to as a “Ghetto pension” – an elusive and complicated payment by the German Government to recompense the “work” of Jews who were forced into ghettos by the Nazis.
Shika was actually born in Brooklyn, NY, to parents whose revolutionary fervor led them to return to Russia in 1918. Eventually they settled in a Ukrainian town called Dunayevtsy, established as a shtetl in the 16th century, and later known as a hub of Jewish and Zionist literary scholars and collective farming. Shika was working as a blacksmith when World War II came to Dunayevtsy in the summer of 1941. Along with other town people, he was drafted into the Red Army. When the ghetto was established, Shika’s parents, siblings and his wife Anna were forcibly moved there.
During the 3-year occupation, the Nazis carried out public hangings and mass executions of the Jews. A witness interviewed by Yahad-In Unum (Father Patrick Desbois’ organization) described one of these executions: “The Germans gathered 700 Jews. They took them into the mine where the water rose until their knees. Afterwards, the entrance was exploded and Jews were suffocated inside.” In fact, records show that on May 8, 1942, nearly 2,300 Jews were buried alive in those phosphate mines.
In early 1942, Shika’s military battalion was surrounded by the Nazis and, except for a few soldiers who managed to escape, Shika among them, everyone else was killed. He knew how to survive in the woods and after a month on his own, he walked and crawled to Dunayevtsy in search of Anna and his family in the ghetto. It was upon his return that Shika learned about the horrific deaths of his family members. Anna had survived, but Shika’s father, Srul Kuperman, and Anna’s father, Aron Pak, and all their siblings had been thrown alive into the mines.
Shika was placed in the Dunayevtsy Ghetto in approximately March 1942, where he continued to work as a blacksmith as he had done prior to the Nazi invasion. In late October 1942, Shika and his wife knew that they had to leave the ghetto or face the same fate as their family, as the Nazis were preparing to liquidate the ghetto. They appeared at the home of Iosif and Anna Gavelskiy, non-Jews who had been family friends and who had run the collective farm on which Shika was employed. They took the risk of asking for shelter. They told the Gavelskiys how they had escaped when yet another group of Jews was being taken to the death pits.
Initially, Shika and his wife were hidden in the Gavelskiys’ attic, but every night Shika went down and helped Iosif dig a small hiding place in the barn floor. The Kupermans spent a total of 18 months hidden in this hole in the ground. Once a day, Iosif or his wife brought a bucket with food and water and emptied their waste pail. No one else knew of their presence. On March 26, 1944, when the Red Army liberated Dunayevtsy, the Kupermans emerged from their hiding place and returned home.
Shika was afraid that Red Army leadership would prosecute him for having abandoned his battalion during the siege in early 1942, so he ran to the woods again. There he met one of his nephews who had been fighting with the partisans, and together they joined the Red Army which helped liberate Europe. Shika’s son Arkadiy was born in 1946 and was named after Anna’s father, Aron. The Kupermans later moved to the United States, yet they always maintained contact with their wartime rescuers. On March 5, 1998, Yad Vashem recognized Iosif and Anna Gavelskiy as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
More than 8,000 Jews were killed in Dunaevtsy, and over 12,000 bodies have been exhumed in the region. A modern memorial reads: “The remains of our dearest fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters, who died at the hands of the German monsters, lie here. Your bright image will stay in our hearts and memories forever. Let this mass grave remind people about the inhumanity of the Nazi invaders. October 1942.”
Fast forward to December of 2017, when Holocaust Community Services (HCS) of CJE SeniorLife brought William R. Marks an attorney with more than two decades of expertise and litigation victories in Holocaust reparations, to Chicago for a panel on the current state of compensation funds for Nazi victims. With the keen eye of Maya Gumirov, Russian Survivor Coordinator at HCS, Shika was identified as someone potentially eligible for a “ghetto pension,” for which he had never before applied. Marks met with Shika and Shika’s daughter-in-law, Bella, and was able to determine that the case appeared to have both veracity and viability. The pension claim was filed in Hamburg by Marks’ partners in Berlin. Four months later, word of a substantial “win” was received from Germany, and the news – both thrilling and chilling – was delivered to Shika and his family.
HCS has been adamant about finding survivors who may have been “missed” in the fluctuating and complex landscape of Holocaust reparations. Staff deeply understand that survivors can never be truly compensated for the trauma and losses they experienced, yet it is imperative they are made aware of any opportunities to be recognized in this way. It is never too late.
As the Holocaust atrocities which befell Jews in the former Soviet Union have continued to be better known and documented in recent years by the efforts of institutions, scholars and individuals (such as the USHMM and Father Desbois), many survivors are only now feeling both acknowledged and willing to be heard. The urgency of age and legacy is felt by both the tellers and the listeners. HCS has encouraged and facilitated such testimonies, and has recently published 130 narratives by survivors in Chicago. The book, an English-Russian bilingual volume called Never Heard, Never Forget, weaves the tales of loss and resilience in the face of mass killings and evacuations, camps, ghettos, forests, and hiding places in Nazi-occupied Soviet territory. And there is more yet to tell – and, undoubtedly, more possibilities of long overdue compensation from the German Government. It takes informed staff to recognize opportunities for unclaimed reparations’ funds, and partners with highly specialized legal expertise to ensure that survivors are getting everything they can.
As they age and decline, survivors in Chicago and many urban areas of the United States are certainly in need of any monetary assistance that is available; more than a third live below the poverty line – a shocking and shameful statistic. Shika’s compensation will include not only an ongoing monthly pension but also, more importantly for someone at his advanced age, a lump-sum payment retroactive to July 1997. This “back-pay” benefit is a result of key class action suits against the German Government pension authorities. Marks, and especially his Berlin legal partner, RA Simona Reppenhagen, spearheaded this litigation. Together they have helped many thousands of survivors navigate intricate eligibility requirements and algorithms to win even the most difficult ghetto pension cases, especially those which lack any direct documentation of a client’s wartime work and so which have to be “reconstructed” using all available historical data.
“The fact that Shika was Brooklyn-born, like both my parents and grandparents, and that he is by far the oldest client to have retained me during my 25 years of reparations work, make the success here especially satisfying,” said Bill Marks. “CJE’s staff is highly trained to help survivors, such as Shika, and they recognize that more sophisticated legal assistance may be required in order to ensure that there is no money left on the table in Germany to which they might be entitled,” continued Marks. `
Shika’s initial response to the news of his settlement was to tell Bella that he wants to travel to Israel, which he has never visited. Perhaps there will be another milestone in the making. It is, indeed, never too late.
Yonit Hoffman is Director of Holocaust Community Services.Holocaust Community Services (HCS) is administered by CJE SeniorLife, in partnership with the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF) and Jewish Child & Family Services. HCS provides concrete and supportive assistance to Chicago-area survivors. Funding is provided by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the German Government, private foundations and individual donors. For more information, contact HCS@cje.net or 773-508-1004.