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.

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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.

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