Re: Old Files

As archivists, we are very attentive to how an archive—the collection as a whole as we received it—is arranged. The arrangement of an archive says something about the organization that produced it, the business processes that shaped the records remain as a sort of after-image of the arrangement of the records. So it’s funny to us to find instances of HIAS trying in various ways to understand how it maintains its own records. You can see here, in a letter from May 1956, Louis Horowitz, director of HIAS’s European Operations, looking for advice on records management.

“Re: Old Files,” Horowitz’s letter on the “question […] of how to dispose of old files and records.”
We have noticed in the records from the mid-50s a move to close a lot of branch offices in Europe. We assume that at this point most WWII refugees had been resettled—either in the US, Latin America, or Israel—and HIAS was turning its attention to helping Jews in the Middle East and North Africa.

In the late ’50s, HIAS got the idea to consolidate all of their archival records (mostly case files serving as the official record of immigration) as part of its 75th anniversary celebrations into the newly named (“brisened”?) Wilhelm Weinberg Hall of Records, named for the banker and art collector who had fled the Nazis in 1941 and had recently died. We are still finding out more and more about the Hall of Records, but even before the hall was opened, one HIAS employee had a few complaints about the proposal.


Ilja Dijour served as the Director of Research for HIAS at this time. We first came across his name in a letter he’d written (in French) to Executive Director James Rice a few years prior. It seems that he’d worked with HIAS in some capacity from 1928 to 1940. We like Dijour, something about him seems very cosmopolitan, and the candor and stubbornness revealed in his letter suggest he is a man of principles. Also he advocates for a professional archivist and for a standardized catalog of the records—what’s not to love!

Below is a promotional photograph for the Hall of Records—Rice is in the middle. Absent from the festivities, of course, was Mr. Dijour, who did not attend—purposely!



But Dijour’s wasn’t the first call to action regarding HIAS’s recordkeeping practices. Below is a page from the “Survey of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society,” circa 1918, by the Field Bureau of the National Conference of Jewish Charities.


The section of the survey called “Files and Records” points out that there is “no central files and records room or unified system of filing [….] Records are scattered through almost all the offices in the building [….] The result is that the valuable material is frequently mislaid […] and not infrequently, frantic and fruitless surveys are made of all available files in the search for a needed case record or letter.” Surely, if Dijour had known about this survey (by then nearly 40 years old), his letter to Rice wouldn’t have been so cordial.


Cuban Refugee Program

“With the rise of Castro’s power in 1959 and the introduction of economic, political an educational suppression, Cuba’s 10,000 Jews who had lived in that country since the 1920s and were refugees when they arrived in that country began to seek a permanent haven in the United States. By the summer of 1960 large scale exodus of Jews began, ultimately involving 7,500 persons. At that time, United Hias set up a resettlement staff at the Cuban Refugee Center in Miami.”

Narrative Report to Department of Health, Education & Welfare, 1973
Narrative Report to Department of Health, Education & Welfare, 1973

I have been working with a group of five boxes that were poorly identified in our box list, but which have turned out to be files of HIAS Comptroller Harry M. Friedman, from the 1950s through the 1970s. One box is mostly correspondence with HIAS’ office in Tel Aviv; most of the remaining files cover in great detail HIAS’ participation in the rescue and resettlement, mostly in the United States, of Jewish refugees from Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s. With the recent thaw in US relations with Cuba, these files are all the more interesting. Plus an unexpected mention of the US base at Guantanamo Bay, and “diverting planes to Cuba” adds a layer of intrigue and context.

Many of Friedman’s Cuba files deal with the financial arrangements constructed with both private funding and government appropriations, as one would expect in the files of the Comptroller. As HIAS Comptroller, Friedman also held positions of responsibility with the Board of Directors – Financial Vice-President, and Secretary to the employee pension fund. Because of these combined responsibilities we have decided to place his files within the Executive Division instead of in Finance. It is clear from Friedman’s files that he worked closely with the Executive Vice-President, and appears to have been an integral member of HIAS’ professional executive team for possibly 25 years.

The Cuban files contain correspondence with Jewish communities including the Central Jewish Board of Curacao and the Jewish communities in Jamaica and Mexico. Members of these communities worked with HIAS in NY and in Miami to evacuate refugees first on short charter flights from Havana to Jamaica, and then to the United States processing center in Miami. HIAS also worked with other non-profits, including Church World Service and the International Rescue Committee, in arranging for and covering the costs of these flights.

Central Jewish Board of Curacao, 1970
Central Jewish Board of Curacao, 1970

By 1970 8,000 Jews had been evacuated from Cuba. Ralph Bergel, a HIAS employee long involved with resettling refugees in communities throughout the United States, shared the following anecdote about two brothers, 16 and 21, who had recently arrived in Miami in a letter to Executive Vice-President Gaynor I. Jacobson: “After so many years of dealing with Cuban refugees, we had this week a new experience. For the first time two young Cubans escaped from Cuba by slipping into the navy base, Guantanamo, from where they were brought to Miami with a group of other escapees, by navy plane … they lived with their parents close to the navy base, and without informing their parents, entered the base.  The brothers are destined to their uncle in Houston, Texas, who agreed to take them, at least temporarily into his home … We just learned that the Cuban Refugee Center does not authorize for Guantanamo arrivals flights to their community of end destination, in order to avoid any chance of diverting planes to Cuba.  The two young men are being sent by bus to Houston.”

Old Office Document Formats from the HIAS Archive

Since beginning the project two months ago, we’ve already run across some interesting formats from the 1950s, formats that were once common in office settings and now seem quaint. We’ll start with a random (way overstuffed) folder from HIAS’s executive office.

Overstuffed Folder

You can see how the pressure from the documents packed too tight has caused many of the documents to curl around the others. These documents are usually on very cheap paper, so overstuffed folders can lead to different preservation issues depending on the format of the document in question.

Curled Paper

Onionskin is a kind of paper we find a lot in records from the 1950s. It is very thin, lightweight, and translucent, making it a good stock for carbon copies, permanent filing, and airmail–helping businesses save money on storage space, postage, and copy typists. You can see in the photo below how thin this paper really is.

Onionskin See Through

The issue we find is that it’s very easy for onionskin paper to get mashed up by the thicker paper around it. Here’s an example of some onionskin that has been crushed up against a box for decades. Notice how the acids in the box’s cardboard have browned the ends of the sheet.

Crumpled Onionskin

Luckily, onionskin is pretty durable. It has a high content of cotton fibers, making it strong and flexible as well as containing little-to-no acidic lignin, which causes most paper from this era to yellow and crumble. At the same time, this durable paper holds a crease very well. If a sheet of onionskin falls down in the back of a slumping folder, you get something like this:

Crumpled Blue Onionskin

However durable, it’s still an incredibly thin stock, leading to some easy tears. Back before photocopiers and desktop printers, a lot of hard labor was saved with the help of scotch tape. Unfortunately, the glue in scotch tape is not particularly stable and the adhesive is often very acidic, eating its way from the back . . .

Taped Back

. . . to the front.

Taped Front

After sixty years, though, most of the adhesive has dried and the tape itself is so desiccated that it peels right off without a problem, though that’s not always the case, as seen in the photo below.

Pages Stuck

Old, acidic, wood-pulp-based paper slowly disintegrates over the decades until it is brown and very brittle.

Brittled Paper

Here you can see how easily brittle paper cracks . . .

Embrittled Paper Edge

. . . and flakes off.

Cracking Brittle Paper

There are also reproduction formats particular to this time. Thermofax was a photocopy technology introduced by 3M in 1950. The process used infrared light, which was absorbed by the black ink of the original document, heating it up, and that heat would then transfer to the special heat-sensitive paper, resulting in something like the document you see below.

Thermofax Front

The problem with Thermofax is its tendency to darken over time, due to the heat-sensitive leuco dye embedded in the paper. Over time, the dye continues to develop and is often corrosive to surrounding documents as well as the copy itself, which becomes brittle over time. You can see here how much this document has lost contrast (though, it’s difficult to say whether this is solely the work of the passage of time or of the very inexact and temperamental Thermofax process).

Thermafax closeup

And the final uniquely mid-century format we’ve run into (so far!) is Agfa Copyrapid. Introduced in 1949, Copyrapid is based on a process called diffusion transfer reversal, which is very similar to silver-halide-based black-and-white photography (in fact, the diffusion transfer reversal process was key to inventing instant cameras such as the Kodak Land Camera).

Copyrapid back

Instead of projecting light through a transparent negative onto light-sensitive paper to create a positive image (much like traditional black-and-white photography), Copyrapid uses a special negative transparency that is exposed to light reflected off the original document. The image on the negative is then physically transferred to a special sheet of copy paper by pressing them together. The transferred image shows up as a positive image.

Copyrapid Front

Don’t ask us how it works. For all we know, it’s just mid-century magic. Hopefully, we’ll keep running into interesting obsolete formats and posting them here, and rest assured we will continue to do our best to flatten curled and crinkled documents, capture fading text, and give the documents a better chance at surviving intact for the foreseeable future.


HIAS plaque

For many years from the 1920s to the 1960s, HIAS occupied a large building at 425 Lafayette Street in Manhattan. Since the 1960s this building has been the home of the Public Theater. Below is the plaque that today commemorates HIAS’ former home.

HIAS plaque Lafayette Street building
HIAS plaque, Lafayette Street building