Shanghai and the HIAS Mystery

Between 1938 and 1941, ~18,000 German, Polish, and Austrian Jews fled to Shanghai, a city that lacked the centralized authority needed to enforce exclusive immigration laws. I studied this community for my MA research, and it is only in hindsight, as a HIAS project processing archivist, that I see how odd it is that I never encountered HIAS in my research.

After Pearl Harbor, Japan-long a colonial power in China-did away with its Chinese puppet government in Shanghai, and exerted direct control over the city. This act cut it off from the outside world, and especially from Allied powers. As a result, the Jewish refugees became isolated from the world outside of Shanghai.

Despite the isolation of Shanghai and the hostility of the Japanese towards organizations with Western ties, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee -a humanitarian relief organization-maintained a presence in Shanghai, importing money and necessary goods from neutral powers whenever possible, and suffering the wartime, slum conditions alongside the people they were working to help. And from working with the HIAS papers, I know that they too remained in Shanghai throughout the war.

The reasons why I never encountered HIAS in my research are twofold. First, HIAS records are not easily accessible, and are not apparent in online finding aids. I learned the second reason while processing some of HIAS’ newsletter files. During the war years, these publications included short briefs outlining what HIAS was doing for Jews in various corners of the globe, including Shanghai. There, it operated under the name “HICEM.” I had not come across HIAS in my research, but I certainly had seen HICEM many times.

HICEM came to be in 1926 in Paris as a merger of HIAS, the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA), and EmigDirect, which operated out of Germany. The agreement between the three stipulated that local branches outside the US would work as HICEM, while HIAS would continue to handle Jewish immigration to the United States.

EmigDirect had to back out of the merger in 1934, and during the Second World War, British regulations forbade the ICA from using funds outside of Britain. Therefore, during many of the war years, HICEM received funding primarily from HIAS; the JDC also provided a good deal of capital.

This information is fabulous for me as a historian, but also extremely helpful for me as an archivist. Having now been on both sides of modern Jewish immigration history, I know what kind of terms researchers may be looking for, and can use this knowledge to make the research process that much easier for them.


Relief Allowances for Food, 1943

I’ve taken a brief step back from the 1950s records I’ve been processing to work on the files of the National Refugee Service (NRS). The NRS was formed in 1939 for the purpose of helping refugees from Europe escape Nazi persecution. It was the successor organization to the National Coordinating Committee, formed in 1934, to coordinate the immigrant aid work undertaken on by various affiliated agencies.

In 1946, at the end of WWII, the NRS merged with the Service to Foreign Born department of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) to form United Service for New Americans (USNA). Eight years later, in 1954, USNA  merged with HIAS to form United HIAS Service. Because the work of the NRS was ultimately absorbed by HIAS, some of the NRS documentation from its 7 years of existence were retained by HIAS and will become part of the HIAS archives collection at the American Jewish Historical Society.

The mission of the National Refugee Service on its letterhead, 1940

The Executive Director of the NRS reported monthly to the Executive Committee in a written report, and many of these reports survive. An item in the August 20, 1943 report caught my attention:

“Relief Allowances for Food: Relief clients are finding it increasingly difficult to get along on our food allowances, because of high prices. This is illustrated by our figures based on actual retail prices collected by the Agency. The following tables show the comparison between weekly market basket costs for maintaining the minimum adequate standard for families of five persons as of January 15 and June 15 [1943].”

Comparison between weekly non-kosher market basket costs from January 15 to June 15, 1943
Comparison between weekly non-kosher market basket costs from January 15 to June 15, 1943

“Our present allowances are based on retail food prices as of January 15; e.g., the non-kosher allowance for a family of five is $12.56, and the kosher allowance is $13.06.

"This falls ... 73 cents short for a kosher family" in meeting the "minimum adequate standard for families of five persons as of January 15 and June 15", 1943
“This falls … 73 cents short for a kosher family” in meeting the “minimum adequate standard for families of five persons as of January 15 and June 15”, 1943

This falls 91 cents a week short of meeting the minimum adequate standard for a non-kosher family, and 73 cents short for a kosher family … An early meeting of the Family Service Committee will be called to consider action to deal with this situation.”

No matter what the economy, it was hard to put together a healthy diet for a family as an immigrant family worked to get settled in a new country. NRS, as well as HIAS and other organizations offering aid to immigrants in these years made the job a little easier.

HIAS’s “Espionage Ring” in Lebanon

Jews have lived in what is now Lebanon since ancient times, which has contributed to a strong Lebanese and Arabic identity among the Jews hailing from modern-day Lebanon. Since the early 2nd century CE, The Jewish community in Lebanon maintained peaceful coexistence with other regional religious and ethnic groups, and such relations continued into the 20th century, especially relative to neighboring Syria and Iraq.

But, beginning in the 1950s, anti-Jewish sentiment grew as the Maronite Christian majority was being opposed by the growing Muslim minority who were influenced by Arab nationalism, perhaps nudged in that direction after the creation of Israel in 1948.[1]

Still, while Lebanese Jews were mostly favorable toward Zionism, most preferred to stay in Lebanon rather than emigrate to Israel or elsewhere, even despite some sporadic violence, such as the bombing of the Alliance Israélite Universelle school in 1950).[2]

Unfortunately, the situation only worsened over the course of the 1950s, to the point where emigration was beginning to become a pressing reality for many Lebanese Jews. It is at this point that HIAS begins making contact with the Jewish community in Beirut, though that came to an abrupt halt when fifteen Jews were arrested for “spying for HIAS.”

Letter from James Rice regarding the situation in Lebanon (from the unprocessed records of Executive Directory James P. Rice, HIAS archives).

The translation from the Jewish Day Journal is below, and the “item in the JTA” that Rice mentions is probably the article “Lebanese Paper Urges All Jews to Leave Lebanon; Says 2,500 Emigrated,” by the Jewish Telegraph Agency, which quotes a Beirut paper, Kul Sheye (elsewhere styled Kul Shay), as reporting that 5,000 Lebanese Jews had emigrated, going on to say, “‘We will not regret it if another half of Lebanese Jews will leave the country [….] It is better that they leave on their own at the earliest opportunity than wait until we shall ask them to leave when we might get in trouble with the United Nations.'”[3] 

Only a few months before, there had been trouble between Lebanon and Israel, when Israel captured an alleged Lebanese spy plane.[4]

While most Lebanese Jews looked favorably on the creation of a Jewish state, they did not feel compelled to emigrate to Israel. Unlike many Jews in the Soviet bloc, North Africa, or Cuba, Lebanese Jews did not want to leave their homes, nor did they feel very much pressure to leave. If anything, the struggle for power between the Maronites and the Muslims caused more economic uncertainty and political instability than fear of religiously motivated attacks. It was this instability that was causing some Jews to consider emigrating,.

However, paranoia appeared to grow among the more extreme proponents of Arab nationalism. Rebel groups threatened to blow up the Jewish quarter in Beirut, known as “Wadi Abu Jamil,” claiming that munitions were being stored in the synagogue there. Any support for Israel was more and more seen as treasonous—even contact with HIAS would appear suspect.[5]

Jewish Daily Journal article on the HIAS “espionage ring” (from the unprocessed records of Executive Directory James P. Rice, HIAS archives).

It seems that more than ethnic or religious differences, it was Lebanon’s proximity to Israel that led to such a marked change in the political landscape that Lebanese Jews no longer felt welcome in their own country, a land they had lived in for millennia. Though Lebanon sat out the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, it could not shield itself from the political fallout. The occupation of southern Lebanon by the PLO and later by Israel and then Hezbollah and the long-term presence of the Syrian military caused most of the remaining Jews to begin emigrating.[6]

“The Arab-Israeli war of 1967 marked the turning point in the history of Lebanon’s Jews. Though Lebanon stayed out of the conflict, the war’s impact changed the country’s political landscape. A large number of Palestinian refugees entered the country and Palestinian armed groups were now frequently launching resistance operations from Lebanon against Israel. Many Jews feared perpetual instability and started leaving the country.”[6]

Most estimates put the number of Jews in Lebanon today at around 200, most of them certainly living under the radar.[7,8] As we continue processing the collection, we will keep our eyes out for more information on HIAS’s role in helping Jews emigrate from Lebanon after thousands of years of calling it their home.

[6] ibid.

HIAS and Ellis Island

Sometimes while processing, I am lucky enough to come across an interesting story about HIAS’ external operations and engagement with the larger Jewish community. I found the following to be particularly interesting.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan asked Lee Iacocca to head an effort to raise funds for the restoration and preservation of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, both of which were in various stages of neglect and deterioration. To raise these funds, Iacocca founded the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.


Ellis Island circa approximately 1983. Photos courtesy of “Centennial for Liberty: 1886-1986.”

As the Foundation set to work, it neglected to reach out to the ethnic organizations whose members shared their histories with those who entered the United States through Ellis Island. This irritated HIAS leadership, and frustrated the Director of Public Affairs; especially since it was so clear to HIAS leadership that the Foundation needed the involvement of ethnic organizations for fundraising and interpretive purposes. HIAS also bristled at the fact that this exclusion constituted an erasure of their work on Ellis Island during the height of the Age of Migration (1880-1920).

During those years, HIAS officials at Ellis Island worked to translate and served as liaisons for new arrivals. They provided welcome, food, and shelter, lent money, and located relatives for new arrivals. Their actions allowed thousands of refugees who would have otherwise been sent back to their countries of origin to enter the United States.

To ensure that the history of Jewish migration, and their own labor, was recognized in the newly restored Ellis Island, HIAS pushed for the official inclusion of Jewish organizations in the restoration and preservation efforts; indeed, the organized American Jewish community selected HIAS as its representative to the Foundation.

Towards the final stages of the project, Karl Zukerman—the Executive Vice President of HIAS—urged the organization and its members to raise an additional $250,000 for a plaque commemorating HIAS’ legacy in Ellis Island, to be placed in the Immigrant Aid Societies Gallery on Ellis Island. Zukerman wrote that this was “probably the only occasion we will ever have to commemorate our achievements at a national monument.”

This piece of HIAS history is so interesting because it is the first evidence I have come across showing HIAS knowingly making their organizational history, and its place in American Jewish and Immigration history, part of their identity; a trend that would continue through the rest of twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

Update: After posting this, one of the archivists here at the American Jewish Historical Society alerted me to the presence of the papers of one Philip Lax in our collections. Lax was heavily involved in a number of Jewish organizations, and organizations dealing with issues of interest to the Jewish community. One such organization was the Ellis Island Restoration Commission. He was appointed to the Commission planning team by President Carter, and served as president beginning in 1978. He was also involved in the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Centennial Commission and chairman of the board of the Committee of Architecture and Restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The collection finding aid may be found here.