Remarkable Woman: Ilana Rovner

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By the time she was 7, little Ilana Diamond knew she wanted to be a lawyer.

"I believed lawyers did good, from what my father told me," she says. "I still believe it."

As an infant, she and her parents had left their home in Latvia, fleeing Hitler. Growing up in Philadelphia, she heard stories about family members who didn't get out and who were killed by the Nazis. To a 7-year-old, good people — lawyers — could prevent such horrors from happening again.

Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner is sitting on a small couch in her chambers in the Dirksen Federal Building. She did become a lawyer, of course, and later was named a federal judge for the Northern District in 1984. In 1992 she became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

In her spacious chambers, law books are outnumbered by photos of family and friends. They are everywhere. Also on display are several documents.

"These are the things that saved my life," she says. There's her green card, with a photo of her in Shirley Temple curls, that was issued after she arrived in the U.S. in 1939. There's her mother's passport, which allowed them both into the country. And there's the letter.

Her father wrote it on Sept. 12, 1938, joyfully announcing her birth to two of his cousins in New York and accepting their offer to sponsor the family's emigration from Latvia. Her father, Zelig Dimants (that's his picture she's holding in the photo at right), was going to come to America alone; her mother, Rasja, was reluctant to leave her family and stayed in Latvia for a year. Zelig wrote the letter to his cousins but made an error; he rewrote it and kept the first version, the one she holds gently and reads from.

"We are of course troubled that we cannot take this journey together. … Life separates us," he wrote.

"The nerves are overstrained and God knows how long it will last and how it will end."

"Well," the judge says softly. "We know how it ended."

Q: Your escape from Latvia is an amazing story.

A: My mother did not want to leave her family, of course. My father had left in September of 1938. I have the letters where they are pleading with each other to come back. My father pleads with my mother to save me; my mother pleads with my father to come back, that it would blow over.

Finally my mother acquiesced and bought tickets on a ship. But the ship would not take her furniture, so she sold the tickets to a mother and her son. That ship, the Athenia, was sunk by the Nazis. Then mama was able to buy tickets on the Queen Mary, but that got commandeered for the war. We finally came over on the last regularly scheduled ship that sailed before the war.

Q: How many family members did you lose in the Holocaust?

A: Oh, gosh. I don't even know. My great-grandmother dropped dead when the Nazis came for them. That was my mother's great comfort. She knew her suffering ended right there, and she didn't have to see anything more.

Q: Your parents never returned to Latvia. And until October, you had never been back. What made you decide to go?

A: I had met the then-president of Latvia (Valdis Zatlers) and the ambassador (Andrejs Pildegovics), and they said, 'You must go back.' After all those years of saying I'd never go back because it was a death camp for my family, I decided to go.

Q: What was your visit like?

A: Overwhelming. I don't think the English language has a word for the roller-coaster of emotions I had. Just to walk the streets my family walked. … I was actually in the building my family left from. … I gave a speech at the University of Latvia, which is where my father got his masters in economics. I walked the stairs he walked. I was hugging the stair railing, imagining him touching it.

Q: Some of it must have been terribly difficult.

A: I didn't know if I could handle seeing where my family, both sides of my family, died. A dear friend, Peter Thompson (a documentary filmmaker and member of the Columbia College Chicago faculty) wrote to me. (Reading from his email) 'Yours is the voyage of a lifetime. It brings everything together for you. Your schedule sounds a bit overwhelming, so add the Rumbula Forest (scene of a mass slaughter of tens of thousands of Latvian Jews in 1941) to the mix. The members of your family need to feel your feet, and to hear you there.' That's what made me go to the forest. I wanted to walk where they walked, out of love and respect for them.

Q: That's where they all died?

A: Yes. And my parents never knew. They were still planning to bring them here. They were making plans, putting pennies away. Then, in 1944, a telegram arrived from the Red Cross. They were all dead.

Q: Is that letter your father wrote your most prized possession?

A: Oh no. My son (Max) is, though he's not really a possession. He's 43, he's a lawyer and a doctor, a resident in psychiatry at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Q: Do you have any other children?

A: I like to say I had two kids. My son, and my other son. We had friends who died, and we took care of their son, who was severely mentally disabled. He had the mental state of a 2-year-old. We took care of him for 10 years, until he died. He was 63. My Tommy. He could say, like a 2-year-old, sentences of three words. No more. Never four. My favorite was 'Tommy love Ilana.' Then, 10 minutes later, he'd punch me.

Q: Who are your heroes?

A: I believe that in our profession are people with the highest moral fabric. They're heroes. They're people who uphold the rights of the downtrodden, the worst among us, because they are living the law.

Also, to me, the great heroes are social workers. The doctors, the nurses, the people who deal with the people who are hidden. And they are hidden. It's like Medieval times. We give lip service, but we don't integrate them the way a great society should integrate people. Most people would rather look at movie stars than these people.

Q: You have a reputation for being very compassionate.

A: Helping people is paramount in my life. If I don't help somebody on a given day, I have to help two people the next day. It's my joy. It's kind of selfish. I get so much joy from being helpful. My husband always said to me, 'Dolly, learn to say no.' I never did.

Q: Your husband, Richard, was a celebrated neurologist who did much for the epilepsy community. He was an associate professor at the Northwestern University Medical School; he was an associate professor at Rush University Medical School and a lot more. That's how people remember him (he died in 2009). People also say you were a wonderful couple.

A: I knew him four weeks and six days before I married him. Know what I regret? That I took so long.

One of the things I miss most about my beloved, it was like we were one person. I have one kidney (she lost a kidney to cancer in 1985), and his heart was so bad. I used to say we didn't make a whole person. We agreed on everything. It's so wonderful to have someone who's a yes man.

Q: What makes you laugh?

A: Almost anything. I make me laugh. I see humor in very unusual places, where other people don't. Recently, we had a case. Two men, 80 and 74 years old, I think. They had been sentenced to 20 and 24 years. Which, really, that's a death sentence. I said to the other two judges, yes, they're really dreadful people, but I think you have to give them some hope. And one of the other judges said, 'Ilana, you are such a bleeding heart.' And I said, 'But that's my dating pool!'

Q: What do you do to entertain yourself? Do you like sports?

A: I'm not a sports fan at all. I love music. I love opera. Opera saved my life. I got to go eight times last year. When my husband died, I mourned for 111/2 months. The week the 111/2 months was over, all I wanted to do was listen to music. So I carry an iPhone when I walk down the street. I also love to dance. But there's no place around Chicago, except for the Willowbrook (Ballroom), and that's too far. My husband and I danced every morning and every night. Now I dance alone.

Q: Explain how opera saved your life.

A: My father was an opera critic in Latvia. The man he sat next to at the opera — they got to know each other at the opera — was named E. Allen Lightner. (Lightner was the United States' consul in Latvia.) One night he was talking to my father and asked if he had applied for a visa to leave Latvia. He said yes, but that we were way down the list. He told my father to come to his office the next morning. He did, and we had been moved to the top of the list. Opera saved my life.

Q: Did you visit the opera house in Latvia?

A: Of course. And I saw an opera. A very interesting Japanese opera, called "War Sum Up." It's one of those modern operas. Very interactive, with screens of videos and photographs. It's about what hell war is. The audience went wild.

Q: Have you thought of retiring?

A: I love my work. I love walking into this building, I am mad for the people I work with — they're my family. I am mad for the other judges.

Q: For someone who spends so much time in the courtroom, you're very positive about people.

A: I have a lot of love for everyone. I try to have no negative feelings. That's so destructive.

Q: Have you ever looked back at what you've accomplished and said, yeah, I helped overcome injustice, I did good, like as lawyers are supposed to do?

A: Not yet. Let others pat me on the back if I deserve it. I can't explain how badly I want to be a good person. Not being a good person, being a bad person, that must be a terrible way to live.

whageman@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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