A Written History of HIAS

It all started with a HIAS Board meeting resolution in 1983 that deemed a written history of HIAS and its involvement in the history of Jewish migration ‘appropriate’ and by all means necessary.

By 1984, the Executive Committee approved several thousand dollars in funds from the Liskin Family Foundation and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation in order to fund the project.

“Such a volume would,” according to HIAS President Emeritus Edwin Shapiro in a letter to the Board, “by virtue of HIAS’ historic and integral role in aiding Jewish migrants, highlight the work of our organization.” Mr. Shapiro goes on to applaud the Liskin family’s generosity by noting “and the fact that HIAS was the organization closest to Ida Liskin’s heart, stems to a great extent, from the fact that Mrs. Liskin never forgot that it was a HIAS representative who met her at the docks when she arrived in the U.S. as a bewildered, 18-year-old girl.”

Ida Liskin, that very same bewildered girl, later went on to become a notable member of the HIAS Women’s Division and remained a close and long-term friend of HIAS. She made sure to bequeath money to HIAS in her will.

Soon after funding was legally secured, HIAS organized a Book Committee to coordinate the publication details and chose Ronald Sanders, noted Jewish history author and historian as the author of the forthcoming tome.

The Book Committee unanimously agreed that “The purpose of the book would be to educate, promote HIAS’ identity, attract membership, attract potential leadership, attract bequests. The book should primarily be addressed to the Jewish community, students, (high-school, undergraduate, post-graduate), as well as to the general public, scholars, and practitioners.”

What a wish list!

Visas to Freedom by  Mark Wischnitzeranother written history of HIAS, only spanned the organization’s history from its beginning up until 1954. The Book Committee’s official opinion was that although it was a useful reference book, it was “dry and rather uninteresting.” (We are still looking for documentation to see HOW happy HIAS was with Sanders’ final publication…)

Wischnitzer’s book and Sanders’ book Shores of refuge: A hundred years of Jewish emigration, are both available to request and read in the Center for Jewish History’s Lillian Goldman Reading Room.

Let us know which one you enjoy more!

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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.

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.

More on Government Relations – Staff Files Reveal a lot about HIAS and a lot about US Immigration Policy

Rachel posted recently on the official beginning of the HIAS Government Relations Department in the 1980s, which she uncovered during the processing of Philip Saperia’s files. She focused on the how and why of the chronological arrangement of the files.

I recently completed the processing of other professionals in the Government Relations Department, including Deborah Mark, who took over as Saperia left HIAS in the late 1980s.

Deborah Mark was initially hired by HIAS in 1989 for a very specific project within the Executive Vice-President’s office, as Special Assistant to the EVP, Karl Zukerman. Mark’s role as “Appeals Coordinator” was to coordinate appeals processing between the HIAS office in Rome and communities throughout the US from which information for the appeals was gathered.

In September 1989, amid Glasnost and evolving Russian emigration policies, the need for Mark’s position ended when the US government changed its practice of denying refugee status to large numbers of Soviet Jews in Rome and appeals were much less necessary.

Most Soviet Jews leaving the USSR since the 1960s had traveled first to Europe for document and interview processing; from there they mainly went to either Israel or to the US. The US government had offices at various times in Rome and Vienna, and HIAS and other immigrant aid organizations set up offices there as well. After September 1989 Mark became responsible for “implementing the plan for working with Jews inside the Soviet Union”, according to an interview with Deborah Mark in Soviet Changes are ‘welcome challenge’ to Jewish aid agencies by Rita Gillmon in the San Diego Union, November 17, 1990.

Deborah Mark interview, 1990

After six months at HIAS Mark’s position became permanent. In 1991 Mark became the Director of Planning and Government Relations, 1991-1994, and from 1995-1997 the Director of Government Relations and Public Policy. Her voluminous files – 35 boxes – cover the 8 years of her involvement with HIAS, and document HIAS’ broad reach in many areas:

  • Working with legislators to affect positive change in the field of immigration and refugee resettlement in US communities and ensure adequate funding for government programs
  • Teaming with colleagues in other immigrant aid organizations and umbrella organizations such as InterAction, the National Immigration Forum and the Council of Jewish Federations
  • Establishing working relationships with governmental departments such as the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Immigration & Naturalization Service
  • Understanding the finer points of the continually evolving legislation on immigration, naturalization, citizenship and the asylum process
  • Reacting to global events and the need for immigrant and refugee assistance in Haiti, Cuba, Bosnia, former Soviet countries, African countries, Mexico and elsewhere.

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.

 

HIAS Women’s Division

Women’s Division—Audio-Visual Mobile Unit, 1950s.

When the Women’s Division came into existence as an auxiliary group to HIAS, their original, main purpose was to raise money for larger-scale international endeavors. In addition to this task, its members also took on more personally-connecting roles with incoming immigrants.

In the early years, Women’s Division members volunteered at the Lafayette street shelter, ran a thrift shop whose proceeds went to HIAS, and began personally meeting incoming planes carrying refugees at JFK airport.

Although membership and volunteer activity with the Women’s Division surged after WWII, by the 1980s and 1990s, initiative and group attendance was waning. Many of the previously active members had grown too old for volunteering and changes needed to be made in order to maintain the solvency of the Division as a whole. With work, HIAS sparked interest in a large contingent of Russian women in particular, displaced from the Soviet Union and searching for supportive communities in the city. They found solace in the Women’s Division, providing boosting membership numbers, much-needed clerical help, and translation services. These women found for themselves a sense of purpose and strength with others in similarly isolating circumstances.

At the Women’s Division Board meeting on April 8 [1991] it became even more apparent that we will need to infuse new blood into the Division if it is to survive at all…It seems clear that developing [new] chapters of Russian women is the way to breathe new life into the WD and at the same time increase HIAS membership.  –Carolyn Agress to Roberta Elliott, April 10, 1991

There were several Division chapters in NYC, scattered around the different neighborhoods, all with their own unique roster of leadership, meeting schedules, and fundraising techniques. A representative from each of these chapters was elected to be part of the larger Women’s Division Board, and the president of this board represented everyone at the general HIAS Executive Committee meetings.

At the time of the resignation of Women’s Division President Arline Bronzaft in 1994, only two chapters were still functioning in NYC. By 1998, we know that the auxiliary group had been dissolved (or at the very least was soon to be), due to this template draft written on behalf of HIAS President Norman D. Tilles and Executive VP Martin A. Wenick:

DRAFT-Letter re Women’s Division, undated. I-363, Executive Office Subject Files, HIAS—Women’s Division.

 

 

Always Factual, Often Dazzling: HIAS Annual Reports

Each year, HIAS Executive Board members as well as members of various Committees and Sub-Committees convene to discuss the year’s financial status, track contributions to their cultural missions, resolve issues, and plan for the year(s) ahead in the form of Annual Meetings. Although these meetings may not seem that exciting from the outside, they serve as valuable roundtables for discussion, decision-making, and organizational networking.

Every year, just in time of the Annual Meeting, HIAS releases their Annual Report. These publications serve as handy take-aways, highlighting many of the topics discussed at the Annual Meeting as well as other entertaining articles and interviews.

Throughout our processing, we’ve had the pleasure of coming across many of HIAS’ Annual Reports and marveled at the impressive, creative art styles that were chosen to represent one year or another.

Below, we’ve selected some of our favorites. Please enjoy the artistic inventiveness of HIAS throughout the years!

Which year is your favorite? Let us know in the Comments section below!
Images can be enlarged by clicking on them.