Institutional Records and Original Order

I recently finished processing the HIAS Communications records. For me, this functioned as a bit of a crash course in the processing of institutional records.

Of course, when processing institutional collections, the processing goal is to arrange the materials in an order which reflects the organizational structure. But what do you do when no original order—let alone structure—is present in the unprocessed boxes? This is the reality I encountered with the first batch of HIAS Communications boxes I had to process.

With no clear structure or order to work with, I instead created a structure, and organized these materials as subject files.

As I got deeper into the Communications boxes, a subtle order became apparent. Most of the records I processed were created between 1970 and 1995. During that time, there were three heads of the Public Relations/Affairs Department: Barbara Wachtel, Brenda Schaefer, and Roberta Elliott. In later boxes, their files were frequently grouped together, and I began to recognize their handwriting, and retroactively identify how each woman marked and organized her own papers.

Upon seeing this emerging order, I realized that arranging the files according to Department Director would have been more faithful to the original order. However, because of the constraints of our project, which has tight deadlines and schedules and is “minimally processed” (MPLP), it was too late to go back and recreate that order. Instead, I represented this order by marking down Barbara Wachtel, Brenda Schaefer, or Roberta Elliott’s name on folders containing their files. This was a way to recapture their files intellectually, even though the folders were physically arranged in A-Z subject order.


Finance boxes just waiting to be surveyed.

With Communications behind me, I am beginning to dig into the unprocessed Finance boxes. This time, I understand much more clearly the importance of the initial, quick survey of the boxes, and will be able to group them intellectually before processing begins. I now know to wait and see what sort of order emerges from these boxes before making the decision to impose one.


HIAS office in Israel, 1950s-1960s

Among the material found in the six boxes from the office of Valery Bazarov, Director of HIAS Location and Family History Service, was a box of files, documents and artifacts from the HIAS office in Israel. According to a printout of an email found with the files, this material was sent to Valery by Neil Grungras, then HIAS Director of Europe and the Middle East.

The files are mostly those of Alexander Arnon, the Director of the Israel office, circa 1964-1968. In the 1960s the Israel office provided “special migration services, welfare counseling, location, loan and remittance services, in addition to liaison relationships with [the g]overnment and the Jewish Agency”. [Information on the Israel office from the HIAS 1965 Annual Report]

Artifacts include 2 large guest books, signed by visitors and guests at HIAS House in the Negev during the 10 years it was owned by HIAS, 1955-1965.

Includes signature of Sobeloff, then Solicitor General of the United States
Includes signature of Simon Sobeloff *, then Solicitor General of the United States

Originally HIAS House was built to provide accommodations for scientists and technicians working on the reclamation of the Negev desert. The opening ceremony was on September 16, 1955 (61 years ago today as it turns out). Ten years later, after completing its original function, the building was sold “at cost” to the municipality of Beersheba for the use of the Institute for Higher Education in the Negev, and was renamed, “University in the HIAS House”. That November, 1965, 250 students and 43 professors held classes there; it was planned that HIAS House would eventually become part of the University of Beersheba.

Also in the box was a photograph album, mostly unlabeled, but apparently of facilities for recent immigrants, “olim”, built in various locations around Israel and funded in part by HIAS.

Building for new immigrants in Israel, circa 1950s
Building for new immigrants in Israel, circa 1950s

From the photographs of the signs on some of the buildings it appears that HIAS participated in this project in conjunction with various political parties and other Israeli entities, including the Progressive Party in Israel, Histadrut and Hapoel Hamizrachi in Israel. Recently, we discovered in Finance Department files financial reports from the related HIAS entity, “Mishkenot Olim”.

One loose item from the Israel office materials has already proved helpful in responding to a research question from HIAS about overseas offices – an undated address list of HIAS staff and affiliates around the world.

HIAS Address List, 1976, from the HIAS office in Israel.
HIAS Address List, 1976, from the HIAS office in Israel.

The list is from 1976; someone from the Israel office apparently kept it updated through about 1989.

We hope in the coming months to find materials from other overseas HIAS offices. Stay tuned.

* Simon Sobeloff was the brother of Isidore Sobeloff – See AJHS collection I-433 for more information about Isidore

HIAS’s Unfounded Foundings

The most interesting document with information on the history of HIAS is a 1918 report by the Field Bureau of the National Conference of Jewish Charities.

1918_report001 1918_report002 1918_report003 1918_report004 1918_report005

According to the report,  an group organized a Jewish immigrant aid society in 1889 under the name itself Achnosis Orchim (in other places, styled Hachnosas Orchim, denoting the Jewish concept of “hospitality”), later changing its name to the Hebrew Sheltering House and Home for the Aged. The organization was an aid organization helping Jewish Immigrants. In 1907, it again changed its name, this time to the Hebrew Sheltering House Association.

A little over a decade after Achnosis Orchim was founded, the report states that the Voliner-Zhitomer Aid Society was organized in the store of Max Meyerson (which was somewhere on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan) and gives the exact date of its founding as December 3, 1902. Not long after that, the society changed its name to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, eventually absorbing another society, called Kamenetzer Society, and the congregation Nusach Haari.

In 1909, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society merged with the Hebrew Sheltering House Association, calling itself the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society though often going simply by HIAS.

The only official-looking document we’ve found so far related to the founding of HIAS is a Certificate of Incorporation from  1911.


The certificate isn’t specific about dates beyond the date it was filed, so it’s not immediately apparent how the two societies that merged in 1909 were previously incorporated. The annual report from 1911 (found in YIVO’s HIAS collection) gives 1888 for the founding of the organization, clearly referring to the founding of the Hebrew Sheltering House Association in 1889.

The annual report from 1914 calls it the sixth annual report, giving it a 1908-1909 founding, meaning that at this point HIAS considered its founding as the merger of the original HIAS with the Hebrew Sheltering House Association.


This date is corroborated in many primary and secondary sources. In fact, it turns out to be the only date we feel certain about.

You’ll see that in the 1948 annual report, HIAS’s founding date is given as 1884:


This 1884 date is mentioned many places in the files, including a draft chronology from 1959, which states, “1884: The Hebrew Shelter, formed by Immigrant Jews, is established on the lower East Side of NYC for the reception of Jewish immigrants.” The date of 1884 is also assumed in 1964, when HIAS celebrates its 80th anniversary.


Suddenly, though, in 1980, the founding date is given as 1880. What’s strange is that in all of our research in the secondary literature and in the files themselves, neither 1880 nor 1884 seem to be significant years for HIAS or for Hebrew Sheltering House Association. As far as we can tell, neither of these organizations existed at that time.

These early dates may have to do with the existence of an organization called the Hebrew Emigrant Auxiliary Society, which some writers have called “the nearest approach to a parent organization of HIAS” and “the true grandparent of today’s HIAS,” but there is no information that this organization had any official connection with HIAS or with the Hebrew Sheltering House Association. In fact, most information on the Hebrew Emigrant Auxiliary Society places the dissolution of the organization before 1889, when the Hebrew Sheltering House Association was founded. In the 2001 annual report, this reference to the Hebrew Emigrant Auxiliary Society is made explicit.


Even with access to the records of the organization itself, it is not easy to figure out dates. Most likely, the beginning of these organizations were informal, occurring over a span of time, and they may not have been thinking they would last all that long, and certainly, the founders of these organizations had more pressing matters to attend to, providing legal aid, employment, housing, and food to the droves of immigrants fleeing Czarist Russia.