HIAS and the Jewish Agency, 1961-1986

This envelope was rubber-banded to a folder titled, “J.A./HIAS”, from the European Headquarters files. This particular file is part of the subject files of Ernest Berger, Director of the Geneva office, approximately 1982-1995, and incorporates related, earlier correspondence of his predecessor Leonard Seidenman (1967-1981) and Seidenman’s predecessor, Harold Trobe (1957-1961).

What is going on between HIAS and the Jewish Agency?

The documents themselves date from 1961-1986, and the file may have been Berger’s Jewish Agency file from when he was a “Secretary” in the HIAS Paris office. Correspondents include:

  • HIAS Executive Vice-Presidents (based in New York) James P. Rice, Gaynor Jacobson, Leonard Seidenman (in that role after being transferred from his position as Director of the Geneva office), and Karl D. Zukerman
  • Directors of the HIAS office in Tel Aviv Menachem Kraicer (until his death in 1964) and Haim Halachmi.

HIAS and the Jewish Agency worked together very closely throughout the second half of the 20th century, of course, as both organizations were focused on rescuing and resettling Jewish refugees safely. The issue of contention between them as highlighted in this file is regarding Jews desiring to leave their country of birth who are able to get visas only for Israel, but would prefer to permanently settle elsewhere. Once in the transit country – often Vienna or Rome – they manage to get visas for the United States.

The Jewish Agency referred to these refugees as “Drop-outs”. HIAS’ stance was that they were obliged to help refugees with resettlement in the location they preferred, whenever possible; the Jewish Agency wanted as many Jews as possible to make Aliyah and settle in Israel. Faced with a lot of negative press about harming Aliyah to Israel, in 1983, Ernest Berger wrote to Leonard Seidenman, then Executive VP in the NY office, in a memo attached to a report on the situation: “… anyone we don’t take, will find his way to the non-Jewish organizations [aiding refugees alongside HIAS] … and Israel would still be no better off.” (There is mention here of “Rav Tov”; which, according to the New York Times, was in 1982 a Hasidic “anti-Zionist organization in the United States.)

Thoughts on how to encourage greater Aliyah among Soviet refugees, 1983

In his full report to Seidenman, Berger also said, “… if we really want to do the right thing by Israel, and salve our consciences (and reputation) in the process, and even though the results may be negligible, we ought to at least take some steps to try to decrease the rate of Neshira [Drop out], e.g. by

  • refusing to accept people whose only relatives are in Israel
  • refusing to accept people with a first-degree relative in Israel and, say, only a cousin in the West.”

Berger asked for comments and suggestions on his full report from some of the European offices, and received replies from Evi Eller in Rome and from an unnamed correspondent in Paris. The Paris correspondent is not hopeful that anything they do will be helpful in increasing Aliyah to Israel. But he ends with a plea for the dissemination of factual information.

Response from Paris, page 2
Response from Paris, page 1


Telex technology allowed organizations like HIAS, with far-flung offices and correspondents, to communicate for the first time among offices and affiliates around the world,.inexpensively, on a daily basis. The difference in the speed of communication changed the course of international business enormously.

I’ve been working with the office files of Irving Haber, the Director of Administration and Finance at HIAS’ European headquarters in Paris and later Geneva, from about 1954 to 1979, when he was transferred to the New York office.

In Haber’s files throughout the 1970s, the prevalence of printed telexes shows how content and clarity could be considered secondary to speed when communicating with the New York office, or the various HIAS offices in Vienna, Belgrade, Rome, Wellington (NZ), Tel Aviv, Tunis and elsewhere.

1971 Telex regarding situation in Egypt

The telex above was written by Ernest Berger, from the Geneva office, to Executive VP Gaynor Jacobson in New York. They must not have considered a telex to be a secure communication, because Berger does not mention the cities or the country he is writing about.

Because telexes were charged by time, much like a phone call, correspondence by telex took on the abbreviations and no-nonsense business-only exchange of information we know today from texting. Reports, forms, and the occasional handwritten correspondence continued by postal service, and was never entirely replaced with telexing – fortunately for us, because so much can be read into even business correspondence that is addressed to “My Dear Jean”,

1971 letter beginning, “My dear Jean”

or that has a hastily handwritten note below the typed letter.

1975 memo from the HIAS office in Paris to Jean Goldsmith in the Geneva office

Also lost when sending and receiving by telex is letterhead information, and signatures. And size and quality of stationery – remember airmail onionskin paper? Aerograms? Both exist in Haber’s files.

By the early 1980s, of course, faxing took over for telexing when speed was a priority, presenting other issues of content, form and preservation to the researcher and to archivists. And yet more issues have arisen with long-term archival access to e-mail – something we are still working to gain control over in the archives profession.

The ability to have written text delivered nearly instantaneously to an associate’s office half-way around the world became the default for nearly all communication for obvious reasons. As archivists we continue to marvel at the fast changes in technology as we work through decades of files, and we continue to work to preserve physical records in any format and make them accessible.