HIAS Volunteer Motivated by Family’s Past

HIAS Volunteer Motivated by Family’s Past

The plight of refugees has been a constant life theme for retired attorney and former college educator Fred Wellisch, a JCFS Chicago HIAS Immigration & Citizenship volunteer. In fact, it started before he was born. In 1941, his maternal grandparents were deported from Vienna, Austria to Lodz, Poland - a Nazi ghetto - before being killed. However, his parents and fraternal grandparents survived the Holocaust, leaving Austria in 1938 and ultimately settling in Miami.

“By the time I was born, they were living as well-functioning refugees,” Fred explained. “HIAS appears in three years of family correspondence letters. It’s wonderful that they took people like my parents and made their lives in a new country, in traumatic circumstances, livable. So that’s what motivates me to help.”

Fred currently supports HIAS refugees by helping JCFS staff with a cultural orientation class. Refugees meet once a month for three sessions to learn about things like national and local laws, how the 9-1-1 emergency system works and how to deal with landlords. He also drives refugees to medical appointments.

“Also, one of the new refugees has a pending criminal case and because my experience was in criminal law, I’ve been making sure he gets the correct treatment in the criminal justice system; that he understands his legal rights and immigration consequences,” Fred said. In addition, he and his wife have represented asylum seekers pro bono through the National Immigrant Justice Center, as well as volunteered to support two refugee families from Afghanistan through their temple, Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation.

“Being involved on the ground with a group of people is very rewarding,” Fred said. “You get an insight into what it’s like to be a new person in a foreign environment. It’s a way of walking in the shoes of somebody else. After all, the Jewish experience is a lot of wandering from place to place.

“There’s so much work to be done,” he added.

(If you would like to read the Wellisch/Auerbach family Holocaust letters that Fred Wellisch mentions, please click here to be taken to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.)