Natan Wekselbaum, co-founder of Gracious Home, helped from Cuba to New York by HIAS

The HIAS archives project team has been working on completing the documentation that will make list and describe the collection. We are on schedule to complete the project before the end of 2018. We haven’t been posting often because of our deadline, but couldn’t resist posting this.

Yesterday I read an obituary for Natan Wekselbaum, who started the wonderful store Gracious Home in New York City. First a hardware store, but eventually a luxurious housewares store, the business was incredibly successful. And still is, although the family no longer owns it.

The obituary can be found here.

Natan’s son Charles said this about his father at his funeral,

One thing he told me on various occasions was that throughout his life he often felt like something of an outsider … In Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, he was called a Jewish person; in Havana, a campesino; and in New York, a Puerto Rican,” he said. “I like to think that the lesson that he took away from this feeling, and carried with him, was that the most important thing is to be yourself, to embrace the uniqueness of character of one’s self and of those around you, and to treat everybody well and with respect no matter where they come from.”

Reading further in his obituary I suspected that HIAS may have been involved with his immigration into the United States. This is what I read, a not uncommon story from among HIAS clients:

His father had left Soviet Russia around 1920 because of anti-Semitism and planned to settle in the United States. But, apparently told that the American government was wary of Communist infiltration and that he would have to go to a nearby country first, he landed in Cuba, liked it, began working as a peddler there and remained.

Natan Wekselbaum graduated from the University of Havana, where he majored in business and accounting and joined the family business importing and distributing cosmetics, health and beauty supplies, stationery and hardware.

When Fidel Castro seized power, the family business faltered, and Mr. Wekselbaum, at 27, left for the United States in 1961 with his wife and infant son. He was the last of his siblings to leave. His parents followed several years later.

Were Natan and his family helped by HIAS?

Because many of the thousands of clients helped by HIAS in the second half of the 20th century are listed in the database that was part of our HIAS archives project, it’s easy to check to see if someone’s name is listed. Feel free to follow the link and search on your own relatives or friends who immigrated to the United States between about 1950 and 2000. Perhaps HIAS helped them as well.


Wilhelm Weinberg Collection Rededicated, 1989

In a previous post we wrote about the dedication of the Wilhelm Weinberg Hall of Records at the HIAS headquarters on Lafayette Street, in December 1958.

A press release from 1989, found in Executive Vice-President Karl Zukerman’s files during a survey of files from the 1980s before they were processed, indicates that HIAS sought in 1989 to make amends with Wilhelm Weinberg’s family for having dismantled the Hall of Records when HIAS moved to new headquarters on Park Avenue in 1965.

Rededication of Wilhelm Weinberg Collection, now at YIVO, 1989

YIVO received many of the HIAS files in 1965 when HIAS moved to a new office without room for the voluminous administrative and client files they had accumulated over 40 years on Lafayette Street.

If you read the letter from Ilja Dijour (in the link at the beginning of this post) to James P. Rice written soon after the 1958 dedication, it is clear that in fact the “meticulous evaluation and cataloguing [sic] of records” described in 1989 had been a problem since long before 1958. In fact, according to the excerpt from the 1918 survey (in the same link to the earlier post), even in 1918 the files were disorganized and difficult to access when needed.

Many of the HIAS files that were sent to YIVO throughout the 20th century, including many World War II-era case files, have been microfilmed and cataloged or listed. The files that form the HIAS collection at AJHS will be arranged and accessible at the end of 2018.

We have created a database to many of the post-World War II case files, which will indicate whether a file exists; because of privacy issues physical access to the files depends on parameters set by HIAS. The many thousands of case files that remain physically with HIAS are in need of weeding, rearranging and eventually digitization to create easier access, and HIAS is well aware of the importance of their continuing stewardship of this valuable family history.

It’s a costly project, and after all, records management is not specifically part of the HIAS mission. It is of course not a part of any not-for-profit’s mission. Records that are not legally or fiscally required to be retained become a huge financial burden. We hope in the near future it will be possible to further organize and make accessible the remaining HIAS files, allowing for privacy restrictions as necessary.

And then the challenge is the long-term preservation of their electronic records – something we all have to think about, professionally and personally … but not today.


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.

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 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!