From Milwaukee to the world: A.B. Data reaches 2.5 million people in Holocaust compensation project | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

From Milwaukee to the world: A.B. Data reaches 2.5 million people in Holocaust compensation project

A year ago, Jerry Benjamin, co-managing director of Fox Point-based A.B. Data, traveled to an obscure village in Romania and met Constantine Constantine, nicknamed Cockosh, and his wife, Salcia, both survivors of the Nazi persecution of the Roma (“Gypsy”) people.
According to a diary Benjamin kept of the trip, Cockosh was around 70 years old and lived in a three-room, leaky mud-brick farmhouse with plastic bags for windows. He shared it with 12 members of his family. Poverty, disease (Salcia had tuberculosis) and poor health care for Roma people in Romania have left this couple among the few remaining Romani survivors of the war in that country.

So what connection did Milwaukee businessman Benjamin have with this aging and impoverished Roma who had been a slave laborer for the Nazis?

Cockosh was one of some 43,000 Roma in 17 countries that A.B. Data helped to locate as candidates to receive compensation for suffering caused by the Nazis. He was also one of the some 22,000 Roma that field workers organized by A.B. Data helped to fill out claim forms.

And they constituted only one group within a much larger population. A.B. Data also reports that from 1999 to 2001 it communicated with more than 2.5 million people, primarily Jews, in 109 countries and speaking more than 80 languages.

The company was informing them about the possibility of receiving compensation from the Holocaust Victim Assets Programme (Swiss Banks), the German Forced Labor Compensation Program and the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims. Benjamin was visiting Romania to examine the effort in the country and to meet with survivors — one of several such trips he made to central and eastern Europe.
Until last spring, A.B. Data representatives were restrained by court order from talking about the project to the press or public, said Benjamin.

After that, A.B. Data just has “not taken the time to tell the story to anybody” except the officials involved, Benjamin said — and the firm did that in a report of more than 400 pages filed with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Officers of the court

The story started in 1996 and 1997. According to documents on the court’s web site, in those years several individual Holocaust survivors and the World Council of Orthodox Jewish Communities initiated class action lawsuits against several Swiss banks.

The plaintiffs — originally independently, but some later combined their suits — charged that these banks deliberately kept and hid assets belonging to Holocaust victims and survivors, and helped the German Nazis by laundering illegally obtained loot and profits of slave labor.

(These suits were independent of efforts to obtain compensation from Switzerland for Holocaust survivors by the World Jewish Congress and other groups.)

In August 1998, the parties reached an agreement in the district court to settle the lawsuits for $1.25 billion. That money is being distributed to five groups of people: two categories of slave laborers; refugees either refused entry into Switzerland or abused when admitted; Holocaust victims or their heirs who had deposits in Swiss banks that were never repaid; and people who had assets that the Nazis stole and processed through Switzerland.

The settlement also included people falling under the categories “victims or targets of Nazi persecution” who have insurance claims against Swiss companies. This part of the agreement involved the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.
The next task was to notify the people who might qualify to receive some of this money. They were primarily Jews, but also Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, mentally or physically disabled or handicapped persons; and they lived all over the world.

Enter A.B. Data. According to Benjamin, the district court in 1999 hired the firm (paying it with an allocation of “less than two percent of the settlement”) to be the “notice administrator…. We were officers of the court given the task of finding the members of the class [involved in the suit].”

The firm was chosen because it is a direct marketing company “specializing in the Jewish and non-profit communities,” according to the report to the court.

“Since 1979, A.B. Data has worked on compiling the most exhaustive lists and databases of Jews in the world,” the report states. “These include data concerning organizations and their memberships, leaders, activists and donors involved in causes ranging from Jewish education to religion to social welfare causes and more.”

Three phases

Since, according to Benjamin’s estimate, more than 90 percent of the “members of the class” are Jews, A.B. Data seemed a natural choice to find them. Nevertheless, this was a project unlike any other the firm had previously undertaken in range of countries, languages, organizations and volunteers involved, the report said.

The three-phase project lasted three years. Phase one involved finding people who would fill out initial questionnaires. A.B. Data said it managed to get the message to 2.5 million people, of whom more than 500,000 filled out the questionnaires.

Once the court knew how many possible claimants there were, it developed a plan of allocation, which was completed by the end of 2000. In phase two, A.B. Data communicated this plan to those who filled out the initial questionnaires.

Phase three involved helping individuals file claims — assisting them with filling out forms and assembling support documents, and sending them by secure mail to the appropriate addresses.

In industrialized and prosperous countries, these procedures were relatively easy to carry out. A.B. Data’s paid workers and volunteers could use standard mass media and mail services, and could work with Jewish organizations to find survivors and heirs.
The former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, however, presented problems. “A huge number [of class members] lived there, and they were the hardest to reach,” said Benjamin. Often neither mass media, telephones nor mails worked in these countries. Moreover, some Jews were not willing to come forward, either from disinterest or fear of anti-Semitism.

In those regions, A.B. Data had to rely on local Jewish organizations, international Jewish relief organizations, local contractors and volunteers, and informal networks of local people. In developing these resources, the firm found two powerful allies.
One was Anya Verkhovskaya-Cohen. A Moscow native active in the Jewish Musical Theater, she eventually headed film-maker Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in Eastern Europe.

In that capacity, she helped organize the videotaping of more than 9,000 interviews with Holocaust survivors; and she worked as production manager for the Spielberg-produced documentary film “The Last Days.” She thereby had developed a network of survivors and their families.

Benjamin has a friend at that foundation who said “Call Anya” when asked for advice on how to reach FSU survivors. She became consultant for the effort, and now is a senior vice president at the firm.

Finding the Roma

The second ally was the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s network of more than 100 Heseds, social service facilities spread throughout the FSU that provide medical care and meals to elderly Jews. They also have an associated network of more than 5,000 volunteers who, among other things, visit elderly Jews who can’t leave their homes.

The Heseds formed “the backbone of the Notification program in the FSU,” according to the report. But even these couldn’t reach everybody.

So A.B. Data had to rely on paid contractors and volunteers, many of whom were “willing to do impossible things,” said Benjamin. Verkhovskaya-Cohen mentioned that some went into war-ravaged Chechnya and “walked in the mountains for days” with claim forms in backpacks to find Jews who couldn’t be contacted any other way.

And if reaching Jews was sometimes difficult, reaching Roma people was even harder. They are still outcasts in much of eastern Europe, “persecuted before, during and after the Holocaust,” said Verkhovskaya-Cohen.

They live in out-of-the-way villages, some of which “have not seen an outsider ever,” she said. Most of them are illiterate and have few or no written records, not even birth certificates.

They speak in some 220 different dialects, and their languages don’t have words for some of the concepts in the claim forms. Often they are very suspicious of strangers and don’t want their names on lists.

Yet from March 2001 to this past March, A.B. Data worked with the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, which created teams of paid and volunteer field workers who traveled — sometimes on foot and for days — to Roma villages. There, they had to secure the cooperation of the village chief before being allowed to talk to survivors.

Finally, they had to help the Roma survivors fill out the claim forms. One of the field workers, Stanislaw Laskowsky, a “country coordinator” for the effort in Poland, sometimes left home for two or three weeks at a time and worked 14-hour days, said Verkhovskaya-Cohen.

Indeed, “All the people [involved in this work] put their heart and soul and sweat into reaching as many claimants as possible and helping them in the best way they could,” she said.

The amounts of money many of these people will receive may not seem like much to Americans. Members of the two classes of slave laborers, for example, can receive up to $1,000 each, according to the official web site for this effort (
But in Eastern Europe or the FSU, poverty is so intense that “$1,000 is literally life-saving money” for some people, said Verkhovskaya-Cohen. Cockosh could be a case in point. According to Benjamin, Cockosh said he would use the money to buy medicines and bribe physicians to treat his wife, an apparent necessity in that part of Romania.

Meanwhile, as a result of this effort, A.B. Data has “become an expert notice administrator” and is “now doing more” projects like this, said Benjamin. In fact, Verkhovskaya-Cohen now directs the firm’s Outreach & Notification Division, which she said the firm created “as a result of this work.”