December 11, 2018

The Mensch List: Bearing witness to Russians’ Holocaust stories

For the past seven years, Leon Shkrab, 67, has volunteered every week at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, conducting intake interviews in Russian with Holocaust survivors who are applying for Holocaust reparations through the representation of lawyers at the pro bono law firm.

For Shkrab, nothing could be more important. 

“By letting them tell their stories, I am bearing witness to their suffering,” Shkrab, who worked as a paralegal but is now retired, said during an interview at Bet Tzedek headquarters in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.

Born in the former Soviet Union after the end of the Holocaust, Shkrab — known to his friends as Leo — did not personally witness the horrors of the Shoah, but as an attorney and a Jew he experienced anti-Semitism firsthand in his homeland. That knowledge, coupled with his language skills, make him perfect for interviewing Russian-speaking survivors during the claims process, according to Lisa Hoffman, Bet Tzedek’s Holocaust services program director. 

“I think the No. 1 thing that Leo brings to the culture of Bet Tzedek is a true commitment to serving the community and, in particular, serving Holocaust survivors from the former Soviet Union,” Hoffman said. “He is very dedicated to that community.”

The interviews Shkrab conducts at Bet Tzedek are just the first step for the survivors in the process of applying for reparations. The interview often takes several hours, during which Shkrab listens to the clients’ personal stories of the war — and of the ghetto, the concentration camps and, more often than not, the many family members who perished.

Sometimes a survivor’s conversation with Shkrab is the first time that the survivor has fully told the story of these horrors. The sessions can be very emotional, Shkrab said.

His commitment to this work dates back to his early life experiences, growing up under an oppressive Soviet regime that tried to limit his ability to practice law on behalf of Jews.

As a young attorney, during the mid-1970s, Shkrab provided legal counsel to congregants at a synagogue in Odessa, Ukraine — until Soviet anti-religion officials told him to stop — or face consequences. 

The police were purposely vague about what could happen to him, Shkrab said, and he was too afraid to ask them to elaborate.

Just the threat of trouble was enough to convince Shkrab that it was time for a change. In 1988, after spending a year in Italy, Shkrab, his wife and their daughter were able to obtain visas to immigrate to the United States with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

The family settled in West Hollywood, and Shkrab took classes at Los Angeles City College, earned a paralegal degree and joined the workforce, splitting his time between a position as director of social programs at a local Chabad, where he helped Russian immigrants obtain American citizenship, and a legal-assistant job at a civil litigation firm. Eventually, the law firm hired him as a full-time paralegal. 

Seeking to keep busy since his retirement, he began lending his professional skills to Bet Tzedek in 2007. 

Shkrab works at Bet Tzedek at least once a week, always clocking in a full workday. He receives no pay. He also volunteers several days each week at the County of Los Angeles Department of Consumer Affairs as a legal counselor. Until 2010, he volunteered on a regular basis at Santa Monica Courthouse’s information department.

Of all of these efforts, Bet Tzedek is closest to his heart, he says, because he knows the people he encounters have endured tragedies he was lucky to avoid. And, most important, because with each encounter, they open up to share their stories with him.