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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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!

Search the HIAS Client Database

HIAS maintains an extensive archive of client files. Because of privacy issues, access is carefully restricted. If you would like to see a specific file, please contact the Location Department at HIAS.

However, there are certain fields within this data, which exists in paper, microfilm and electronic form, that the HIAS archives project has made available to the general public. We are very pleased to announce that the search page is now live. Please visit http://ajhs.org/hias-search and search for friends and relatives who may have registered with HIAS between about 1955 and 2000.

A few things to note:
  1. A search in this database will not provide access to the client files – but it will show that a file exists for a specific family or individual.
  2. This search is not exhaustive. If a name does not show up in the search results it does NOT mean there is no file for that person; it just means that they were not included in the data within the database. More information can be obtained from the Location Department at HIAS. Contact the Location Department also for people arriving prior to 1955 if their names do not appear in a search. (Several thousand names are included in this database with arrival dates as early as the 1940s, and a handful from the 1930s.)
  3. For people arriving in the United States under the auspices of HIAS or registering with HIAS during approximately 1955-1980, click on the “Master Index Card Search” tab. For those arriving or registering during approximately 1980-2016, click on the “HIAS Database Search” tab.
  4. The Master Index Card Search includes a pdf of each family, and may provide additional detail including sponsoring family members and their addresses, often a maiden name for the wife, and names of accompanying children.
  5. The database may also prove to be a useful research tool for quick statistics on where people were arriving from in a given year, for example, or how many people from a specific country.

Enjoy the search!

Dr. Henry Shoskes in Latin America, 1947

In the ten or so years following the end of WWII, Dr. Henry Shoskes was the HIAS Overseas Representative to Latin America and other parts of the world where Jews were able to resettle legally.

Our HIAS files include a few of Shoskes’ files in his role as Overseas Representative for HIAS, from about 1947-1956. Included are folders on Australia and New Zealand, Canada, and Latin America. Most of the correspondence in these folders is between Shoskes and others in the New York office of HIAS while he was traveling, and with representatives of the Jewish communities in the countries he visited.

In his folder “Latin America – Memoranda and Reports”, there is a printed memorandum addressed “To: Everyone”, issued by HIAS in New York, with statistics on immigration-related activities for 1946 and 1947; because there is very little information in our HIAS collection from this early, we are saving every scrap:

1947 statistics on immigration
1947 statistics on immigration

Clipped to the memo above is a handwritten notation from Shoskes titled, “The Story Behind the Figures”, with totals by country:

The Story Behind the Figures - statistics from Latin America, 1947
The Story Behind the Figures – statistics from Latin America, 1947

One of the few other sources of information from the post-war years in our HIAS collection are in the annual reports. Checking in the 1947 annual report, in addition to the statistics listed in the memorandum, is a statement of income and expenses – which reveals a deficit of $685,357.54. “The deficit tells the story of the extreme urgency of the work that HIAS was called upon to do.” Adding to the deficit situation was the  knowledge that the following year, 1948 would again “throw a burden of unparalleled magnitude upon HIAS”, including the resettlement of Jews from Europe as well as those in North African countries, whose situations were exacerbated by the November 29, 1947 vote in the United Nations to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, and the proposed establishment of the state of Israel.

Many HIAS officers, board members and professional staff were thanked in the president’s report in the 1947 annual report, including “Dr. Henry Shoskes, who undertook an arduous mission to South America, where they succeeded in obtaining promises from governments in those countries for a more liberal interpretation of their immigration laws. All of them have ably and unselfishly labored to make HIAS a harbinger of good tidings to the sorely troubled Jews overseas.”

The Shoskes files are a rare early glimpse into HIAS activities in the years after WWII. The bulk of the records in our HIAS collection begin in 1954 with the merger of HIAS with United Service for New Americans (USNA) and the migration department of the Jewish Distribution Committee (JDC). HIAS files prior to, during and immediately after World War II can be found in the collections of YIVO.

HIAS Council of Organizations

The HIAS collection contains a limited number of files from the Fundraising Department. These files are being processed now, and as we learn more about fundraising techniques in the second half of the 20th century we will write about it in a blog post and in the finding aid that will be available at the end of the project.

One small group of files, photographs and printed material is from the HIAS Council of Organizations, which seems to have been successful in the post-World War II years in New York. The Council apparently thrived in a number of Jewish organizations in the 1950s-1970s. I first learned about the Council of Organizations while processing the UJA-Federation of New York collection; the following is from the historical note from that finding aid:

The Council of Organizations, a department within the Fundraising and Campaigns division of UJA of Greater New York, organized Yiddish-speaking community-based councils (similar to Landsmanschaften) into fundraising groups. These groups raised money for specific UJA projects in Israel. Many of the projects included funding the building of new schools, medical facilities, libraries, playgrounds, community centers and other public buildings. Joseph Masliansky was the Director of the Council of Organizations in approximately the 1970s through 1982.

The Council of Organizations files from HIAS are not yet refoldered and arranged, but a 4-page history of the Council at HIAS from 1954 provides a snapshot view of its size and involvements at mid-century, which was probably written by the longtime head of the Council, Louis Gallack:

History and Description of HIAS' Council of Organizations, 1954
History of HIAS Council of             Organizations, 1954, page 1
History, page 2
History, page 3
History, page 4

Building Committee, 1920-1921

The HIAS Building Committee minutes from 1920 to 1921 are among the earliest committee materials in the HIAS archives at the American Jewish Historical Society. The committee was in existence during the purchase and dedication of the building they bought in 1920-1921, 425 Lafayette Street, described in the minutes as the “old library” building – in fact, built in 1854 as the Astor Library, by the Astor family. The building was purchased in 1965 by the Public Theater which continues to occupy it. (More on the Astor Library building in a future post.)

HIAS Building Committee minute book, 1920-1921

One of our earlier posts includes a photograph of the plaque on the building today that acknowledges the work of HIAS during the 40  years they occupied the building.

The building became available after the Astor Library merged with the Lenox Library and the Tilden Trust in 1895 to form the New York Public Library. According to Wikipedia, the New York Public Library vacated the building in 1911, and it appears to have been underutilized until HIAS bought it in 1920.

According to the minutes of the Building Committee on May 4th 1920, “The Chairman stated that the Government which is occupying the New Building of the Society as a Retail Food Store will vacate on May 16th.” No other information about the building’s use between 1911 and 1920 appears to be in these minutes.

The Building Committee minutes initially show that the Board focused on the costs of purchasing and renovating the building. Title would be transferred to HIAS on payment in March 1920 of $100,000. Loans were arranged, and a campaign plan put together to pay off those loans.

In the 1920 Annual Report, Treasurer Harry Fischel made a plea for funds to finance the new building (“the National Home for Jewish immigrant aid work in America”): “the Society is practically leading a hand to mouth existence. It has no funds to draw upon. For the Building Fund, generous as the contributions have been, another $150,000 will have to be required.”

HIAS 12th Annual Report, 1920. At this time, HIAS considered their 1909 merger to be the beginning of the modern HIAS.

The chairman of the Building Committee was Harry Fischel; members include Morris Asofsky (brother of long time HIAS General Manager/ Executive Director Isaac Asofsky, 1924-1952), and early HIAS presidents Max Meyerson (1902-1909), Judge Leon Sanders (1909-1916), John L. Bernstein (1917-1925) and Abraham Herman (1926-1947). Harry Fischel was the Treasurer of HIAS (then the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society) from 1890 to at least 1921. He was a “real estate dealer“, philanthropic in many Jewish causes, and died in Jerusalem in 1948.

The minutes contain detailed descriptions of the interior renovation of the building, including voting on placements of water fountains and the colors of the floors, and the committee’s problems after hiring the wrong supervisor for the project.

The dedication was set for June 5, 1921, plans were finalized for suitable donor plaques, and President Harding agreed to speak by telephone to the assembled audience. Unfortunately, because “it would be impossible to make arrangements for the amplifiers … his speech [was] read to the audience.”

By 1965 HIAS had moved to more modern headquarters at 200 Park Avenue. Another blog post will follow in a few weeks with more detail on the Astor Library building.