Earlier this year I worked on about a box and a half of Ben Touster files from the first two years he was president of HIAS, 1952-1954. The files that survived long enough to make their way to the HIAS archives appear random, and pre-date most of the HIAS files that are part of our project. Perhaps these files survived an earlier purging. Or perhaps, like other lay leaders, much of Touster’s HIAS work was done at home, or he had his files sent home after his presidency. Or, also like other lay leaders, he may have directed the organization and led the board of directors, but left the paperwork to the paid staff.
Unfortunately we have so far in this project identified only a few other boxes of files from the Executive Office from the early 1950s; with the merger in 1954 of HIAS with USNA to form United HIAS Service, it is possible that many files were inadvertently lost or destroyed.
Touster’s files include a thick one on HIAS founder John L. Bernstein, and two files of financial reports. And 13 files, over a third of the total Touster subseries, deal with HIAS offices – international offices in Canada, Africa, Australia, Europe, Israel and South America, as well as offices in major cities in the United States – Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington. These files are filled mostly with correspondence and reports to and from each of the offices.
One particularly interesting memorandum found in the Europe office file was sent to Touster by Martin A. Bursten, then the Director of HIAS’s Public Relations department in New York. Written in a breezy 1950s style it is marked “personal”.
Bursten recaps some of the stories he has seen and heard first hand by spending some time in the London office of HIAS. He “studied the files and listened to the cases being handled”, and exclaims, “If anybody … ever tells me that there is nothing doing here, I’ll wave my notes violently to belie the claims.”
He briefly describes the work of the London office, primarily supplying funding or help with visas for people trying to join relatives in America, Canada or Israel. “I am taking pictures of these people today in their homes, and here in the office. THIS IS WHAT MY DEPARTMENT WILL LIVE ON IN THE MONTHS TO COME.”
In a way, that statement in caps sums up what HIAS was doing in those post-WWII years, helping people reunite with relatives or simply get started in a new country. Although few in number, the Touster files give us a snapshot of that work.
I’ll end with Bursten’s post script: “P.S. This cockney typewriter should apply for a HIAS pension!”