More than just a pretty facade: HIAS at Lafayette Street

The Astor Library in 1854.
Unknown – Harry Miller Lydenberg (July 1916). “History of the New York Public Library”. Bulletin of the New York Public Library 20: 570-571.; first published in Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion

The building that stands at 425 Lafayette Street today was originally built as a home for the East Village’s lavish Astor Library. After more than fifty years of serving the public, the library consolidated with the Lenox Library and the Tilden Foundation to become what we now recognize as the New York Public Library.

But what was to become of this architectural marvel? Enter the up-and-coming organization called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

HIAS hired architect Benjamin Levitan to oversee the necessary alterations to create a suitable New York City headquarters. He was very impressed by the building’s original grand structure, including its southerly double-height spaces, elaborate iron and wood book stacks, columns, skylights, and vaulted ceilings—but knew that the building had to become more than just a place for well-designed silent reflection. Levitan and HIAS wanted to create a place that was welcoming, yet able to provide newly-arrived Jewish immigrants the aid, emergency shelter, and sanctuary for religious practice, they sought and deserved as they began their new lives in New York.

After the final structural reconstruction efforts were finished, a community bazaar was held to furnish the building, it was dedicated by President Warren G. Harding on June 5, 1920. This new HIAS location provided ample space for both the organization’s Executive headquarters and facilities to ease immigrants into many aspects of American life.

The building’s features and services included:

  • Separate dormitories for men and women
  • Two kosher kitchens—one for meat preparation and one for dairy
  • A large dining room for comfortable, communal, social eating
  • An operating synagogue, both for those living within HIAS’ walls and neighborhood residents
  • Holiday celebrations, such as a yearly neighborhood Passover Seder
  • Facilities for children, including donated toys and games, classrooms, and a playground

In addition to providing personal shelter and community interaction, 425 Lafayette Street also became ‘base camp’ for various HIAS-sponsored immigration and community services:

HIAS Immigrant Bank
The bank, which was licensed by NY State, was established in 1923 and limited itself to the receiving and transmitting of money to/from immigrants’ families abroad. For many years, no other U.S. banks would send dollars abroad.

Citizenship Services
The HIAS offices were open every Sunday in order to accommodate those who were not able to apply for citizenship applications during the week. HIAS office staff also prepared Affidavits of Support and led citizenship classes for clients during these extra weekend hours.

Ellis Island Services
HIAS set up satellite offices at Ellis Island in order to offer personal and immediate aid to those arriving in New York, those who were in danger of being deported back home, and those requiring other forms of legal aid. 

In honor of HIAS’ work and how they turned one building into a place of hope for thousands of Jewish migrants, a plaque is affixed to the outside of 425 Lafayette Street (what now is the Public Theater). It reads:

HIAS plaque outside 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY.

This plaque is dedicated to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which occupied this building from 1921 to 1965. 

As the International Migration Agency of the American Jewish Community, HIAS’ work, providing rescue and refuge for endangered and persecuted people of all faiths and backgrounds around the world, continues to this day. Founded in 1881, HIAS has rescued more than 4,500,000 men, women, and children, including members of almost every Jewish family in America. Tens of thousands of these refugees and migrants were sheltered and fed in this building before they entered the mainstream of life in this great nation. 

HIAS’ current New York City offices are located at 411 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY.

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Secretary’s Handbook, 1960

In June 1960, the HIAS Office of the Comptroller issued a handbook for the many secretaries working at HIAS. In the days before copy machines, and computers on every desk, there were many secretaries – working for  professional staff, other departmental staff, and in a secretarial pool – all typing letters, telegrams and cables, transcribing recorded correspondence from a Dictaphone, updating lists, adding to and sending case records, and, according to the Introduction, facing “special problems”, which were to be discussed with the Office Manager.

Secretary’s Handbook – Cover, June 1960

The copy above, found in a box of unrelated documents that had been pulled from their respective series and not refiled, belonged to Lorraine Stein (note her name handwritten on the cover). According to the dates we’ve compiled for HIAS staff in the second half of the 20th century, Lorraine Stein was the Executive Secretary to Executive Vice-President James Rice as early as 1964, and 30 years later was the Executive Coordinator – responsible for the efficient running of the Executive Office.

It is likely that secretaries were continually being hired and trained as others moved on from HIAS. The handbook was created primarily for these new employees, making training easier and quicker. The Introduction explains,

The primary purpose of this Handbook is to achieve uniformity throughout the Agency and to summarize for you what is considered good office practice in United HIAS Service.

And it goes on to say,

… this Handbook was prepared with the NEW employee in mind.

The handbook is 57 pages long, including an Introduction, Table of Contents and Index. Even so, the Introduction explains,

This Handbook does not pretend to cover all areas of a secretary’s duties. There are a number of other reference books which you may wish to consult, some of which are listed in the Bibliography section …

58 years later, the handbook serves another purpose; it provides a detailed description of the departments within the building, a snapshot of HIAS in 1960. And it explains things like the difference between a telegram and a cable (in “Take a Wire” on page 39):

“Take a Wire”

Under “File This Copy” beginning on page 41, there is information about how and why the documents that are becoming part of the HIAS archives were indexed and filed as they were.

“File This Copy”

For several decades beyond the 1960s, we have found the indexing on many of the documents most helpful in tracking subject headings and terminology HIAS used as it evolved. The secretarial presence lasted through the early 1980s, when, as happened in offices everywhere as more systems were automated, the large support staff that had kept the files in perfect order became smaller and the filing system broke down. Our challenge in processing the more recent parts of the collection – late 1980s through the 2000s – is to try to recreate how the files were arranged and housed in filing cabinets, and to maintain that order within the archives.

A copy of the handbook can be found in Box 0048 – in the Executive series, the files of Harry M. Friedman, whose department issued the handbook. Friedman was the Comptroller, Financial Vice-President and Assistant Secretary (to the Board of Directors) from before 1960 until his retirement in 1981.

“They Boarded the Planes in Complete Silence”

This blog post is the second post about HIAS and Ethiopian Jewry. See the first post here.

A drought and famine, which was spurred on by the civil war, killed between 400,000 and 600,000 Ethiopians from 1983-1985, mainly in the northern part of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the fighting, poor economy, conscription starting at age 12, famine, and political repression, mostly going to Sudan. Among these refugees were thousands of Beta Israel.

In late 1984, after several years of secret negotiations between the Mossad and the Sudanese government, and with United States government intervention, a coordinated effort between the Israel Defense Forces, the Central Intelligence Agency, the United States embassy in Khartoum, mercenaries, Sudanese state security forces, Sudanese Muslims, and the secret police of Sudan resulted in the first airlift of Beta Israel, which was known as Operation Moses. Over six weeks, starting on November 21, 1984, more than 30 Trans European Airways flights, each carrying 200 Ethiopian Jews at a time, clandestinely flew approximately 7,200 to 8,000 Beta Israel to Israel via Brussels. Operation Moses ended on January 5, 1985, after Sudan’s Arab allies became aware of the operation through a leak in the press and pressured the Sudanese government to prevent any more Jews from going to Israel via Sudan.

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Guidelines on Ethiopian Jewry sent in the wake of a press leak in January 1985.

This stranded approximately 800-1,000 Beta Israel in Sudanese refugee camps. In late March 1985, six United States Air Force planes brought these remaining Jews to southern Israel in Operation Joshua. This second airlift followed a secret appeal to President Reagan by all 100 U.S. senators to save the Ethiopians Jews.

Beta Israel1
Letter sent to Presdient Ronald Reagan by HIAS president Robert L. Israeloff after Operation Joshua.

From 1985-1990, the Ethiopian government made it very difficult for Ethiopian Jews to leave the country for Israel. In late 1990 and early 1991, the Israeli government and the Israeli Defense Forces took advantage of political changes in the Ethiopian civil war as rebel forces began to gain ground against the government, and made covert plans to get the Beta Israel to Israel. The final large-scale airlift of Beta Israel took place from May 24 to May 25, 1991, and was known as Operation Solomon. 40 non-stop Israeli flights between Ethiopia and Israel using 35 civilian and military airplanes, including one Ethiopian airliner, transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours. This was achieved in part due to United States government pressure. At one point overnight, 28 aircraft were in the air at one time. All of the flights were crammed with passengers, often two or three people to a seat and, in many cases, the seats had been removed to accommodate as many people as possible, up to 1,122 passengers on one plane. The immigrants were met by ambulances on the tarmac in Israel. 300 elderly and frail passengers, as well as seven babies, including one set of twins, who were born on the planes, and their mothers, were transported directly to the hospital.

Beta Israel3
Memo to the HIAS Executive Committee after Operation Solomon discussing HIAS’ previously unpublicized role in the immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

After the conclusion of Operation Solomon, HIAS published a long press release detailing the organization’s role in helping thousands of Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel. The story particularly highlighted the work of Haim Halachmi, the director of HIAS’ office in Israel, who had been an integral part of the movement from the beginning in the mid-1970s. President Ben Zion Leuchter felt it was important that the public knew that HIAS had been deeply involved in the rescue of the Beta Israel for many years, even when it had been too dangerous for the organization to publicly acknowledge this fact.

Boxes Moving Out, Boxes Moving In

Today we sent 234 completed boxes to off-site storage, about 4 months of work for the HIAS archives project team. Included in this shipment are files from the Executive office, including Executive Vice-President Karl Zukerman; Government Relations files; and files from the Immigration Representation Department. Most of these files are from the 1980s and 1990s.

47 carts of boxes were shrink wrapped before being loaded onto the truck

Now we have room on the shelves to bring in the boxes remaining to be processed. We expect almost all of this last group of files to be from the offices and departments that worked directly to bring refugees to the United States and to ensure they were resettled in welcoming communities that were prepared to provide necessary services as they transitioned to life in America – English classes, citizenship classes, help with apartments and jobs and schools.

Some of the boxes coming in are from the Matching Grant department, arranging for the funding from government grants and distributing it to the communities who took in refugees. Other files we expect will be correspondence between the New York office and the overseas offices, arranging documents and visas and transportation for new HIAS clients.

We’ll be sharing what we find in these new boxes as we uncover more treasures from HIAS’ history.

Loading the rest of boxes onto the truck

Logos and letterhead

Now that the HIAS Archives processing project is in the home stretch, we have a chance to sit down, go through our notes, and share some gems we’ve found along the way!

We’ve learned a great many things about the inner-workings of non-profit organizations, such as administrative structures, the best ways to increase membership numbers, the right way to write a business letter, and how re-branding your logo can revitalize everything.

Please enjoy this quick post, which highlights several of the more simple, creative, and unique examples of HIAS’ logos and letterhead evolution from one of their first logos in 1914 to their most recent logo from 2018.

 

1914
HICEM letterhead, 1945
HSIAS letterhead, 1952
1953
c1955
75th Anniversary logo, 1959
HIAS House letterhead, 1965
1965
1970
HIAS letterhead, 1976
HIAS letterhead, 1979
HIAS logo, 2001
HIAS’ current logo (as of 2018)

Government Relations in the 1980s: the Archival Arrangement

The American Jewish Historical Society’s HIAS project team recently completed processing on records of the Administration and Government Relations Department of the 1980s. The records cover the years 1982-1990. This post will take a look at how the records are organized.

But first, what was the Administration and Government Relations Department? You wouldn’t be alone if you assumed the two parts of the name must have had something to do with each other—some of us did too. But looking at the records, we found that the “Administration” part actually referred to the administrative functions of the entire agency. Yes, we’re talking about dealing with switchboard problems, setting policy, ordering computers, managing office renovations, evaluating workflow in the mailroom, etc.

The Government Relations part is a bit more interesting, and thankfully represents the bulk of the materials. The federal government was involved in every step in the process of refugee migration to the United States, from the moment a person applied for refugee status, to the time they stepped off the plane. Because of this, HIAS’ relationship with the government agencies responsible for oversight and implementation of the US refugee program was an essential one. The Government Relations department’s role was to establish and maintain a system of frequent and extensive contact with a wide range of entities in Washington, D.C. More on this in a future blog post.

As with other departments, Administration and Government Relations maintained their records alphabetically by subject file, in one to two year chunks. Here is how the records are arranged:

1982 The first set of folders belonged to Karl Zukerman, who at this time served as Assistant Executive Vice President. They are from 1982 and are labeled A-I . So the first folder in this group contains materials related to the American Council of Voluntary Agencies for Foreign Service (predecessor to InterAction), while the last relates to Indochinese Refugees. Folders for J-Z subjects are not present unfortunately.

1982-1983 The next set of Zukerman’s files is for a two year chunk, 1982-1983. For this group we have letters A-U, which is likely the full set of folders, since there weren’t many subjects beginning with letters V-Z. Yay! But you might be wondering, why is there an 82-83 set of folders, and a set of 82 folders by themselves? The reason is that the two sets had two different owners, or “creators” as archival science refers to them. For example, the set of A-I folders from 1982 could have been inherited by Zukerman from the prior staffer in that role. Alternatively, they could have been maintained by Zukerman’s assistant, while the 82-83 set belonged to him. Or, one set could have been what we might consider “general department files” to which multiple staffers contributed materials. It all depends on how the department was organized and what sort of filing scheme met the needs of that group of people.

A two year chunk makes sense because it means keeping recent documents close for when they are needed, while still being a manageable amount of stuff to keep right in the office. At the end of the two years, the files were probably boxed up and brought to the Central Files department. At that point, they were not as close as before, but close enough that one could still retrieve items as needed, probably with the assistance of a staff member in Files. After some period of time in Central Files, records were boxed up again and sent to warehouse storage.

1984 Here again we have one year of files. And again, only folders A-I are present! We do not have an explanation for this. In these materials we see Phillip A. Saperia come on as Director of Planning and Government Relations in June of 1984. He appears to have inherited the files previously kept by Zukerman. So memos, correspondence, notes, etc. addressed to or from both men are present here.

1985-1986 For this period, subjects A-U are covered, just like 82-83. During this time, HIAS reorganized the administrative functions of the agency. In these materials we see that in February or 1986, Saperia’s title changes from Director of Planning and Government Relations to Director of Administration and Government Relations.

1986 This next set is a small group of only administrative files, all pertaining to personnel policy. It is slightly curious that these files were maintained apart from the rest of the 1985-1986 materials, which contained Administrative files mixed in with the Government Relations material, including those related to personnel policy. Perhaps this set originally contained documents of a sensitive nature?

1987 The 1987 files are well represented, running from A-U.

1988-1990 This is the last set of files for this period, and they appear to be complete, ranging from A-W. Yes, this time the subjects went beyond U and into W: Washington Processing Center, and World Refugee Survey. This group appears to have been kept around for some of the next director’s tenure, because Saperia left in 1990 or 91, but there are a few things in here from 92 and 93.

 

Parting question: Do you know why the archivists didn’t just combine the files when there was more than one set? For example, the 1982 group of folders, and the 82-83 group. Leave your thoughts below, and we’ll discuss this topic in a future post.

 

 

 

Brothers Reunited After a Lifetime Apart

On Sunday, February 6, 1983, brothers Zyama Volfson (80) and Samuel Wolfe (somewhere between 86 and 88) were reunited at Miami International Airport for the first time in over 70 years. They had not seen each other since Samuel Wolfe had left Bobruisk, Russia (now in Belarus) at the age of 16, when his brother was still a young child. This was in either 1911 or 1913, according to different sources. When he arrived in the United States, Samuel “Americanized” his name to Wolfe. He worked in various construction jobs, at breweries, restaurants, stockyards, factories, coal mines, and as a door-to-door salesman all around the eastern and mid-western parts of the country before settling in Chicago as a taxi driver in the 1920’s.

 

 

Zyama stayed in Russia, through World Wars I and II, the Russian Revolution, and the rise of Communism, until his wife died in 1980. He then decided to emigrate to the United States with his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. After settling in Brooklyn in 1981, Volfson decided to seek out his brother, knowing only that he lived near Chicago. He sought help from the New York office of HIAS, which helped put Volfson in touch with the Chicago office of HIAS. The Chicago office placed an ad in the Sentinel, an English-language Jewish newspaper in Chicago, in December 1982.

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Wolfe’s daughter, Hodele Markowitz, saw the ad and contacted her father, who by then was spending most of his time in Miami Beach, Florida. Markowitz set up a brief telephone call between the brothers, after which she planned an in-person reunion. Zyama Volfson flew to Miami with his daughter-in-law, Lyudmila, to meet his brother, with whom he had lost touch 70 years before.

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Photo from the Chicago Sun-Times, February 7, 1983. Samuel Wolfe is holding red carnations from his brother.

The charming story caught the attention of various newspapers in New York and Chicago, as well as several local morning television news programs. HIAS’ Chicago and New York offices also received their share of publicity, particularly from individuals looking to make their own family connections.

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