Soundex and Family History Records

Soundex – it hardly exists anymore. But if you are interested in family history, and plan on using census records, or HIAS client files (among other Soundex-coded collections), it can either be annoying or a real time saver.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which holds the census records, created the Soundex system beginning with the 1880 census. Many of the 1890 census records were destroyed in a fire in 1921 when they were being held by the Department of Commerce; a “small percentage” of some the 1890 records survives in an alphabetical index which does not use Soundex. 1900 and 1920 records are completely searchable using Soundex; 1910 has a Soundex index for about half the states.

NARA observes a 72-year delay in the release of census records (the 72-year rule was mandated by Congress in 1978); by the time the 1930 census was ready for release, in 2002, database software had made Soundex obsolete – except for conducting research with records from 1880 to 1920.

A pamphlet found in the HIAS collection (Administration series, Heather Halliday archivist files, box 121), from NARA, “Census Soundex”, gives the above history and then has several pages on how to use Soundex, pictured below.

National Archives and Records Administration Soundex Coding System – looks pretty complicated

What is Soundex and how does it work? The simple explanation is that “Soundex is a coded surname (last name) index based on the way a surname sounds rather than the way it is spelled. Surnames that sound the same, but are spelled differently, like SMITH and SMYTH, have the same code and are filed together … you can find a surname even though it may have been recorded under various spellings.”

Anyone who has done much family history research can tell you that the variant spellings as names originating in other countries changed once in the United States, and is a common problem when hunting down relatives. Soundex is even more helpful when the various spellings of a last name include examples that are spelled with different first letters. Because census records were searched for many years using microfilm, searching throughout the alphabet was incredibly time-consuming.

HIAS developed their own version of the NARA Soundex system, because so many names were Eastern European and there was a need to accommodate certain letters. According to Appendix A in “Genealogical Resources in New York”, edited by Estelle Guzik, the NYC Health Department for the most part used the NARA system.The HIAS Soundex Filing System differs from the NARA system in small ways that have proved helpful to the staff in HIAS’ Location Department. With thousands and thousands of client files, filed by last name and created over decades, being able to locate all the versions of a particular surname in one place was helpful – both in the paper files in their vast Hall of Records, and later (even now) on microfilm.

HIAS Case Name Indexing System, page 1. Not easier than the NARA system, but it works well
HIAS Case Name Indexing System, page 2

Some of the HIAS Arrival Cards were scanned from the microfilm to provide the 1955-1980 data for the database created as part of this archives project, which we’ve mentioned before. (Another post here) If you haven’t had a chance to search for family members who were brought to the United States by HIAS from about 1955 to 2000, please try a search. Because ultimately, the goal of all these systems is to find what you’re looking for.

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Saving the Syrian Jewish Brides

In June 1977, President Hafez el-Assad of Syria approved a plan where 12 young Jewish women would take part in proxy marriages to members of the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn, whom the women had never met, after which they would be allowed to emigrate to the United States. This decision came after months of secret negotiations with Representative Stephen J. Solarz, whose congressional district covered the Ocean Parkway and Midwood sections of Brooklyn, where approximately 25,000 Jews of Syrian background lived at the time, as well as a personal plea to Assad by President Carter, which also was made at the bequest of Solarz.

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The 12 “husbands”, 12 brides, and a young widow and her family, who were allowed out at the last minute. In the front row are Stephen Shalom, a leader in the Syrian Jewish community; Stephen J. Solarz; Rabbi Abraham Hecht of Brooklyn; Bert Chabot, leader of the Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community, who acted as an interpreter; and Rabbi Isaac Dwek of Deal, New Jersey. At JFK, August 11, 1977.

After Syrian independence from France in 1946, the 1947 Partition Plan, and the 1948 founding of Israel, Jews in Syria faced terrible discrimination, including several deadly pogroms and riots. By the time of the Six-Day War in 1967, there were an estimated 5,000 Jews in Syria, down from 40,000-45,000 Jews in 1948. Jews could not work for the government or banks, own telephones or driver’s licenses, Jewish property and passports were seized, bank accounts were frozen, Jewish schools were closed, and the Jewish cemetery in Damascus was paved over. A 1964 law restricted Jews from traveling more than 5 kilometers from their hometowns. Jews who were allowed to leave for medical or business reasons had to leave behind money and family members as collateral. The three largest Jewish communities, in Damascus, Aleppo, and Kamishli, were placed under house arrest for eight months following the Six-Day War. Jews began escaping in secret, sometimes with help from abroad, even though the penalty for attempting to escape or helping someone to escape was either imprisonment with hard labor or death and any family members left behind could be imprisoned. Most of those who escaped were young single men, who wanted to be free to leave at short notice. As a result, by 1977, there were 500 unmarried Jewish women in their late teens and early 20s who had no marriage prospects within the Jewish community and who were not allowed to marry non-Jews.

Representative Solarz traveled to Damascus in December 1976, where he spoke with Jewish leaders as well as Syrian government officials. The Jewish community asked that Solarz help bring the young women to his district in Brooklyn, because of the strong Syrian Jewish community. Certain Syrian government officials told him they were sympathetic to letting the women leave, as long as they did not go Israel. Back in Brooklyn, Solarz contacted local Syrian Jews who started to raise funds and look for eligible young men, as well as staff from HIAS and NYANA (New York Association for New Americans), who helped find private homes for the women to stay in, where their “husbands” could visit, and set up English-language classes and jobs for the women.

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Vice President of Finance Harry Friedman, Executive Vice President Gaynor I. Jacobson, President Carl Glick, and some of the Syrian brides at the HIAS office, August 16, 1977.

Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance spoke with President Assad about the young women in February and in May 1977, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski put Congressman Solarz in touch with President Carter, who then made a personal plea to the Syrian president in May. Assad eventually agreed to let 12 women leave through proxy marriages. Syrian yeshiva students from Brooklyn sent marriage proposals in June and in early July, Stephen Shalom and Michael Lewin, Solarz’s chief of staff, went to Damascus. The weddings occurred on July 19, 1977, and were conducted by the rabbi in the Damascus synagogue. Michael Lewin stood in for the absent grooms. At the same time, two other women were married in person to Americans who had come to Syria looking for wives. More than 500 people were present in the synagogue.

 

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HIAS staff member Shlomo Dekel and William Males help complete the immigration preocessing at the HIAS office, August 16, 1977.

Judge Murray Gurfein in “The Post”

Those of you who have seen the current film, “The Post“, about the Washington Post ‘s perspective on the New York Times and the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, may have very briefly heard the name Murray Gurfein.

You may remember that Murray Gurfein was the subject of a blog post a year ago, detailing his involvement with HIAS (twice serving as president), a short recap of his legal career, and his connection with the case against the New York Times, as a federal judge, when the Nixon administration sued the Times to cease publication.

I caught Judge Gurfein’s name two times in the film. First when Post staff were watching the evening news when Gurfein’s injunction against the Times was announced, and Walter Cronkite referred to him by name, as Judge Murray Gurfein. And second when one of the Post‘s legal team, in continuing to make a case against publication with Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, refers to Judge Gurfein’s injunction.

We’d love to know if anyone catches other references to Judge Gurfein in “The Post”, or in any articles about the film or in discussions of the Pentagon Papers.

The issue of Freedom of the Press was challenged by the Nixon administration in 1971 surrounding the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment remain critical to the free and open democracy we are privileged to enjoy in the United States. And Murray Gurfein, to us, has come to represent what continues to be honorable and important in the work that HIAS does.

 

“The Jewish Problem and the Catholic Point of View”, Quito, 1946

In several previous posts I’ve written about HIAS in Latin America – Dr. Henry Shoskes in Latin America, and “Your representatives just disappeared from Sao Paolo”, HIAS’ work in Brazil has been discussed. Only a few boxes of files in our HIAS archives collection are directly related to this Latin American work, but – as with so much in the HIAS collection – there are many interesting stories.

Below is a pamphlet in Spanish, published in Quito, Ecuador in 1946, titled “The Jewish problem and the Catholic point of view”.

“El problema judio …”, 1946, Quito, Ecuador

Two copies of the pamphlet were sent to the HIAS Board of Directors in New York by Oscar Rocca, the HIAS representative in Quito. Elsewhere in the collection he was described as the president of HIAS-Quito, or as the head of the “committee”. Through the files on the Quito office, we’ve noted correspondence from Mr. Rocca in various positions of authority within the Jewish community in Quito from about 1944 to his death in 1950.

The letterhead used for this memo states, “Comite de Proteccion a Los Immigrantes Israelitas Afiliado a la ‘HICEM’ “. Mr. Rocca’s main reason for sharing the pamphlet with HIAS leadership in New York may be in his fourth paragraph: “We think the pamphlet to be very interesting, because a clear standpoint to our problem is taken therein, what nowadays in such clear a form is seldom to be found.”

1946 memo from Oscar Rocca, president of HIAS-Quito, to the HIAS Board of Directors

A summary of the Spanish-language pamphlet was made by a staff member in the HIAS Correspondence Department in the HIAS NY office:

Summary of Spanish-language pamphlet

I have read the enclosed pamphlet containing a lecture delivered by a Catholic priest in Quito under the auspices of a local general welfare society. [according to Mr. Rocca, the speech was delivered to the Jewish “Associacion de Beneficencia Israelita”.] The lecture is a denunciation of anti-Semitism and is sympathetic toward the Jews. It is significant 1) because the author is a Catholic priest, 2) because it ch….s* to set forth the Catholic thesis on anti-Semitism, and 3) because the pamphlet has the imprimatur of the vicar-general of the Quito archdiocese.

Through this correspondence and other memos and reports in the Quito file, a picture of the Jewish communities in Quito and other Latin American countries emerges. Also described is the leadership in those communities, the fundraising they were doing for Israel and HIAS and the JDC, and how communication, although difficult, was indeed possible between the various HIAS offices. Many of these leaders, like Oscar Rocca in Quito, Dr. Marc Leitchic in Rio de Janeiro, Jacob Feuermann in Buenos Aires and Dr. Aron Benchetritt in Bogota were immigrants themselves and spoke, read and wrote many languages. Often, during the years of the these files, the late 1940s to the 1950s, the easiest language in which to communicate between offices was in Yiddish.

These files will be available for research by the end of 2018 along with the rest of the HIAS archive at AJHS. For access before then, please contact reference@ajhs.org.

* Please write a comment to this post if you are able to decipher this word!