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.


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