Remarkable Woman: Ilana Rovner

7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner holds onto a photograph of her father Zelig Dimants "Stanley Diamond", in her office, Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune / November 21, 2011)

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.