Soviet Jewry, Noshrim, and Yordim

The HIAS Public Affairs/Relations (it went by each of these names at various points through its history) kept a wide variety of record types. These include organizational policy statements, board materials, correspondence documenting work with various museums, conference seating plans, and news clippings.

Beginning in the early 1970s, more and more of these documents centered on the burgeoning issue of Soviet Jewish refugees. While processing these materials, I noticed to recurring terms researchers should be aware of when working with these materials: noshrim and yordim.

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A small sample of the HIAS Communications materials utilizing these terms.

In 1968, the USSR began granting Jews visas allowing them to emigrate to Israel. In 1970, international condemnations led the USSR to increase its immigration quotas. However, many of the emigrants chose not to stay in Israel, but to instead proceed to transit centers–such as the HIAS offices in Rome, Geneva, and Vienna–to apply for US refugee visas. By 1976, over 50% of Soviet Jews granted permission to leave the USSR for Israel instead proceeded into Europe in the hopes of getting to the United States. In political dialogues, these people were referred to as “dropouts,” or noshrim.

The other term, yordim, refers to the emigration of Israeli Jews from Israel, primarily to the United States and Canada.

Noshrim and Yordim were of great concern to the State of Israel, as well as to the ideological branch of the Zionist movement. This placed HIAS at an awkward crossroads in which the aid of Soviet Jewish refugees stranded in Europe brought into question their commitment to their place within the international Jewish community, their commitment to the freedom of all people to determine their own destination, and their relationship with Israel.

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P.S. 137 John L. Bernstein

John L. Bernstein was a New York City lawyer originally from the town of Nizhyn, Ukraine. He came to the United States as a boy, growing up, as did many Eastern European Jewish immigrants, on the Lower East Side in New York City. In 1902, he helped found HIAS, was President from 1917 to 1926, and continued to serve on the board until his death in 1952.

In the early 1960s, the city decided to name New York Public School 137, a K–5 school, after Bernstein to honor his achievements, specifically his role in founding and leading HIAS. The school, originally located at Cherry and Montgomery Streets in Manhattan, was dedicated on October 28, 1966.

Here are some items from the dedication ceremony,

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which includes a program with a crayon cover

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(here’s the inside of the program).

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At some point, the school moved to East Broadway near Grand Street, where it shared a building with P.S. 134 Henrietta Szold. Earlier this year, P.S. 134 absorbed the students of John L. Bernstein, and the school named for one of HIAS’s founding members ceased to exist.

Movie tickets, 1953

On a hot summer day, a story of helping entertain kids in the summer of 1953:

On June 19, HIAS President Ben Touster wrote to Harry Brandt, the owner of a chain of movie theaters. Touster was clearly acquainted with Brandt, although from the file it is not clear how Brandt was affiliated with HIAS.

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Ben Touster requests movie tickets for children and adults in the HIAS shelter, June 1953

HIAS began in 1884 (date of origin to be explored in a later post) as a “sheltering society”, providing temporary shelter for recent immigrants. By 1953, in addition to all the other immigrant and refugee assistance HIAS offered (according to the 1953 annual report, these services included documentation, reception at ports and airports, and “immigrant sheltering”), immigrants were still rotating through their shelter. The shelter was then located in the HIAS administrative office building at 425-437 Lafayette Avenue. Also from the annual report that year: “Sheltering service is furnished not only to immigrants entering the United States under HIAS’ auspices, but also to those sponsored by other agencies or helped here by private individuals.

“The HIAS shelter is a Jewish dwelling place in the strictest tradition of the Jewish people. The kitchens and dining rooms are under the supervision of an ordained and experienced rabbi, insuring proper observance of the kashruth; sleeping quarters are comfortable; medical and dental service are provided for those who need such care; there is a synagogue on the premises, and all religious functions and holidays are observed in the orthodox manner. A kindergarten, under the supervision of adequate and competent directors, serves pre-school children.”

Children at HIAS shelter, Chanukah 1953 (from 1953 Annual Report)
Children at HIAS shelter, Chanukah 1953 (from 1953 Annual Report)

So it seems that what was needed was entertainment for the kids (and the adults, when they weren’t tracking down paperwork or looking for work) in the summer, and what better way to entertain kids in the summer than by sending them to an air conditioned movie?

Touster requested a block of movie tickets every week for kids in their care from Harry Brandt, who was the founder with his brothers of Brandt Theatres. Here is Brandt’s reply:

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Harry Brandt offers to arrange for tickets

Someone pencilled in three movie theaters near the shelter on Lafayette Street:

The Charles, at 193 Avenue B near 12th Street, opened in 1926 as the Bijou Theater. It became a church in the 2000s, and the building was demolished in 2012. The Greenwich was at the corner of 12th Street, just west of 7th Avenue, and is now an Equinox health club. The Palestine on Clinton Street became the Winston in the 1960s and was partially demolished in 1971.

Touster’s response is below:

list of theaters near LES
Final document in the file

No further correspondence is in the file; one can only hope that Harry Brandt was able to supply HIAS clients with movie tickets in the summer of 1953.

 

 

From Tunisia, with Love

HIAS was truly an “international organization” in the sense of intrigue that the phrase suggests. Well…not really…but working in foreign countries with their particular laws and customs could put an international aid worker in a compromising position.

Such was the position in which Al Goldstein, director of operations in Tunisia, found himself when he tried to do a friend a favor. We came across records of his plight in the files of James P. Rice, Executive Vice President of United HIAS Service from 1956 to 1966.

The Jewish population in Tunisia had been in a steady decline since the events leading up to independence from France in 1954, and by 1964, the Jewish population of Tunisia had declined by 92%.[1]

Mostly this decline was caused by unemployment, but by the time of the Bizerte Crisis, in 1961, President Bourguiba’s increasing rapprochement with the Arab League nations and burgeoning anti-Israel sentiment caused many Tunisian Jews to worry about their future in Tunisia. Antisemitism, which had been largely absent in Tunisia (especially in government), became a more frequent occurrence.[2]

But the biggest threat to Jewish life in Tunisia was the economy. The lingering economic toll of the struggle for independence, the departure of many middle-class French Tunisians after independence, along with increasing government regulation and control of the economy threatened the stability of the merchant class of Tunisia, “in which Jews were heavily represented.”[3,4]

It was in such a context that Alphonse Fall, a Tunisian publisher and printer, decided to sell his business at a great loss and expatriate to Marseilles. But in order to get his money out of the country, his brother, Joseph Fall, head of the Caisse Israélite de Relèvement Economique loan kassa[5] in Tunisia, needed someone with access to foreign accounts to, in a sense, ‘launder’ 3,000 dinars (about $7,500).

Enter Albert Goldstein, colleague of Joseph Fall. As can be seen from the timeline below, Goldstein agreed to the transaction, which he said was pretty routine among Tunisians for getting money past the tight restrictions on currency exchange.

Goldstein had returned from Marseille, where he had made the transaction with Alphonse Fall, when he was arrested on December 19th, 1963, by a “special brigade of the economic police.”

Goldstein was released on January 17, 1964, and had to pay a fine in the amount he transferred and repay HIAS for the legal fees incurred. Needless to say, Goldstein was fired soon after.

It’s not clear from the records what became of Joseph Fall. We know that he was treated much worse by the customs authorities than Goldstein. But the date of his release, his punishment, and what he went on to do is still a mystery.

It’s no Midnight Express, but the travails of Al Goldstein are a reminder of the precarious position of HIAS officers in North Africa at a time of shifting identities and loyalties.

Finally, in the spirit of fairness, we give Goldstein the last word. Here is his own narrative of the events and motivations that got him incarcerated.

Notes

[1] http://www.ajcarchives.org/AJC_DATA/Files/1964_12_NSAfrica.pdf
[2] http://www.ajcarchives.org/AJC_DATA/Files/1962_14_NSAfrica.pdf
[3] http://www.ajcarchives.org/AJC_DATA/Files/1954_11_NorthAfrica.pdf
[4] http://www.ajcarchives.org/AJC_DATA/Files/1961_13_NSAfrica.pdf
[5] Loan kassas are free loan societies created by the Joint Distribution Committee.