Edward M. Benton, HIAS attorney

Edward M. Benton was born into HIAS royalty – his father was John L. Bernstein, a founder in 1902 of the what we on the HIAS archives project understand to have been the first real predecessor organization of today’s Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. * John L. Bernstein remained on the HIAS board until his death in 1952. He was a lawyer, and provided pro bono legal services to HIAS for half a century.

Edward’s uncle was James Bernstein, a doctor in Brooklyn connected with Zion Hospital. He was director of HIAS activities in Europe approximately 1924-1947, having replaced E.W. Lewin-Epstein in the HIAS Warsaw office. (Followers of this blog may recall a previous post on E.W. Lewin Epstein.)

Edward M. Benton
Edward M. Benton

John’s son Edward was an attorney like his father, and seems to have officially become counsel to HIAS in 1952. Edward’s biographical form submitted as a member of the HIAS board of directors is below:

Board of Directors Biographical Form, Edward M. Benton, circa 1954
Board of Directors Biographical Form, Edward M. Benton, circa 1954

And in his biographical statement from the 1980s, he lists his various positions and accomplishments in connection with his long-time involvement with HIAS:

Edward M. Benton biography, page 3 - his long involvement with HIAS
Edward M. Benton biography, page 3 – his long involvement with HIAS

We have processed a small collection of Edward Benton’s files in the HIAS collection (Executive series/Executive Office/Other Executive Staff/Legal – Edward M. Benton), about one linear foot of files. There are a few files related to his father John’s work with HIAS (in HIAS president Ben Touster’s files and Executive Vice-President Isaac Asofsky’s files), and two files on John’s brother James (Program series/U.S. Operations/Location and Family History Service). Researchers will be able to locate these files on members of the Bernstein/Benton family when the completed finding aid is posted online at the end of 2018. Until then, contact the HIAS team through this blog if you are interested in seeing the files or browsing the related folder lists.

* Some credible sources give the history this way: the Hebrew Sheltering House Association (formed 1889) merged with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (1902) in 1909 to form the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). More detail will be available on the HIAS timeline, soon to be live on the HIAS archives project webpage.

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HIAS and the Floating Department

One of the complexities of processing an institutional collection is that the institutions themselves do not function with the intent of making life easy for future archivists (shockingly enough). While the goal of the archivists processing this type of collection is to represent the internal organization of the institution as clearly as possible, sometimes organizations can become so complex that archivists must make difficult editorial choices in the name of accessibility and ease of use.

As I have previously discussed on this blog, HIAS—typically in cooperation with the Department of State and the UJA-Federation of New York—awarded grants to Jewish organizations across the country, which in turn used the money to resettle refugees. It was the Matching Grants Department which handled and kept careful record of that money.

Matching Grants comes across as a department that rather intentionally made itself difficult to trace. It would be reasonable to assume that Matching Grants existed within the Grant Management Department, which itself was situated within the Finance Department. However, that assumption would be incorrect.

Before 1993, Matching Grants was handled by an organization outside of HIAS; between 1993 and 2000, Matching Grants existed as its own department, separate from both Grant Management and US Operations; after the year 2000, Matching Grants existed under the umbrella of US Operations, a department which handles refugee resettlement. Complicating the picture is the fact that the staff names and handwritings attached to Matching Grants papers remained stable, even as the department floated around the HIAS organizational structure.

To represent this movement in the collection and finding aid, while aligned with the goals and practices of processing a large institutional collection, would prove confusing and unintuitive for future researchers. Therefore, we made the decision to organize Matching Grants into the Finance Series, as the vast majority of materials from Matching Grants are financial in nature.

International Intrigue: HIAS in Morocco

Found in the files of Executive Vice President James Rice are these reports of meetings in late 1961 with Colonel Mohamed Ofkir, a high-ranking official in the government of King Hassan II notorious for his extremely harsh dealings with dissidents and political enemies.

It wasn’t immediately clear to us the author of this report. Most likely it was Gaynor I. Jacobson, then director of operations in Europe and North Africa, though it could have been Rice, himself, but it’s not noted explicitly.

The meetings concern HIAS’s interest in assisting Moroccan Jews who wanted to leave the country, since prohibitions on emigration to Israel had recently been lifted. Ofkir is initially open to the program but becomes critical after the program is underway.

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The first page of the report details the day leading up to the meeting with Colonel Ofkir in November at the Sûreté Nationale building in Rabat.

Raphael Spanien (Deputy Director of the HIAS branch in Paris covering Europe and North Africa) and the author arrive around noon. Colonel Ofkir is indisposed, so they meet with his assistant, a “Mr. H.” whose true identity we haven’t been able to confirm. Mr. H. drives Spanien, the author, and Habib Tayeb, Commissaire Adjoint for Tangiers, to lunch in his car. The car had been the favorite car of King Mohammed V and had been given to Mr. H. by King Hassan II after Mohammed V, his father, had died. The author writes that Mr. H. “was one of the late king’s closest collaborators, and in whom he had the utmost confidence,” which seems to suggest that Mr. H. is something more than a mere ‘assistant’ to the colonel.

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Mr. H. is described as “keeping the pulse of the country and the throats of his opponents” and “prides himself on having a secret dossier on every important personality which assures their cooperation or forces their silence.”

After lunch, Mr. H refers to an incident that occurred in Casablanca where “Jews were attacked on account of their attire and because they did not demonstrate suitable warmth for their august guest, Colonel [Gamal Abdel] Nasser [President of Egypt],” of which Mohamed V declared his innocence and claimed that “suitable measures had been taken” on those assumed to be responsible.

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Finally at 5:00 PM, the HIAS reps meet with Ofkir; the meeting is over by 5:45 PM.

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Colonel Ofkir tells the members of HIAS that he is interested in “the successful start and continuation” of HIAS’s work in Morocco, emphasizing the dangers to himself and to HIAS should word get out about his involvement in helping Jews emigrate, which the “internal opposition” would “be inclined to exploit […] to the detriment of his majesty [Hassan II].”

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After the meeting, Mr. H. mentioned his children studying in Paris and Switzerland to whom he has trouble sending money, due to Morocco’s currency restrictions. He asks the members of HIAS if they would be willing to exchange his Moroccan currency and deliver the corresponding amount in francs to his son, and Spanien and the author “indicated that [they] would be pleased to be of assistance.”

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That December, there was another meeting with Colonel Ofkir in Casablanca, along with the governor of Casablanca, Colonel Driss. Again, it is not clear who the author of this report is, but it seems this time he went alone to the meeting.

In the month and a half since the very cordial and promising meeting with Ofkir in Rabat, HIAS’s work helping Jews exit Morocco apparently didn’t proceed with sufficient discretion. Okfir says that the emigration has taken on the dimension of an “exodus” and calls for an end to the HIAS program.

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The HIAS official notes his responses to the Colonels’ list of issues, hoping to come to some further agreement, but there is no more information in the file if such an agreement came to pass.

A decade later, Ofkir, then appointed minister of defense, attempted to assassinate King Hassan II and take control of Morocco. He was most likely executed by royal forces, and his family was sent to a secret detention camp in the desert for twenty years.