By Mimi Teller
American Red Cross volunteer Bob Rich will long remember the reunion he helped arrange and witness between holocaust survivors Leon and Max after 59 years of separation. Even though Max was six years old when the two were lost to one another in 1944, it was a teenage Leon who rescued an orphaned Max from a crib in an abandoned, Belgium military barracks. Leon brought Max to the orphanage where he lived, and where they remained together until they were placed in homes around Belgium for the war’s duration. It wasn’t until years later Leon learned that anyone left behind at those barracks was sent to a Nazi labor camp.
People go missing every day amid international conflicts, disasters, migration and other humanitarian emergencies, leaving thousands of people to grieve over missing family members. When a loved one goes unaccounted for the family members left behind are on an endless mission to learn the fate of a missing relative, constantly fluctuating between despair and hope.
Bob and fellow Restoring Family Links volunteers provide confidential and free services to reconnect families parted by international crises — through worldwide tracing networks and other organizations volunteers endeavor to locate lost loved ones being sought.
“I’m doing what I’d hope anyone else would do for me” shared Bob, “There is no other feeling quite like the experience of connecting families who have been separated. No matter how long they’ve been apart, it’s a unique and wonderful emotion to see them embrace. Makes me feel like I’m doing my part for humanity.”
Bob received extensive training in gathering personal histories while working for the USC Shoah Foundation (formerly Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation), a nonprofit organization dedicated to making audio-visual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust. In 2001 Bob went to work for the Red Cross as an international specialist, managing the Restoring Family Links program; in 2009 he became a volunteer for the same program where he continues re-connecting families to this very day.
“Sometimes people are startled when we connect and tell them a relative is looking for them” Bob concludes, “In most cases people are happy to be found.