Rescue from a Displaced Persons Camp, 1950

The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany was liberated by the British Army on April 15, 1945. After medical treatment in an emergency hospital the British set up nearby in a school built for Panzer Division troops, the concentration camp survivors became the first residents of the Displaced Persons (DP) camp of the same name. The Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp was established in July 1945 by turning the hospital wards into living quarters. Nearly half of the 29,000 survivors of the camp died “despite the best efforts of the British Army, the British Red Cross”, and other groups and nationalities.

Large numbers of DPs began leaving the camp in 1947 as opportunities for emigration improved. “The British government allocated 300 certificates a month to Jews in the British occupation zone, allowing legal emigration to Palestine.” By March 1949, the population was down to 4,500. The DP camp at Belsen was closed in September 1950 and the remaining 1,000 people transferred to Upjever near Wilhelmshaven. A view of this new camp, from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, is here. This camp in turn was closed in August 1951. The majority of former Belsen DPs emigrated to the State of Israel. Many others went to the US (over 2,000) or Canada (close to 800), a minority decided to stay in Germany and helped to rebuild the Jewish communities there.

As we wrote in a previous post, Janet’s part of the HIAS archives project is to make selected non-confidential client data more widely accessible in order to allow the general public to search for family members in the  HIAS database.

This HIAS registration card (with name redacted) serves to illustrate the work of HIAS in resettling some portion of the survivors of WWII, either at the Bergen-Belsen camp or other camps liberated by the Allies:

HIAS client from Displaced Persons Camp in Germany, 1951

The client registered with HIAS in June 1951 – one of the last residents of the Upjever DP camp to have his resettlement arrangements finalized. From the card we don’t know where he was between the closing of the camp in August and his arrival in the United States in December, but we do know that he was destined for Harrisburg, PA in December 1951, probably under the auspices of a HIAS affiliate in Harrisburg, most likely the local Jewish Federation office. At 38, he would have lost more than 10 years of his life to WWII and its aftermath, and was facing a new life in a new country with a new language to learn. It is possible he had no family in the United States, but one can hope that with support from HIAS and other agencies in operation in Harrisburg and elsewhere he was able to settle into a community and rebuild his life.

Sources:

  1. Much of the historical portion for this post were taken from: Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp, Wikipedia article accessed 6/8/17 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bergen-Belsen_displaced_persons_camp. See the article for more detail and complete citations.
  2. JTA press release announcing the closing of the Upjever camp: http://www.jta.org/1951/08/22/archive/jewish-dp-camp-closes-in-british-zone-of-germany-last-jews-leave-for-israel
  3. For access to the HIAS client database (with thousands of more recent records to be added this month), see: http://ajhs.org/hias-search

 

HIAS President Meets HRH Princess Anne

Founded in 1933 after a meeting between UK Jewish community leaders and Members of Parliament, the The Central British Fund for German Jewry came into existence in order to aid German Jewry as Hitler came to power in Germany. In the years after its founding, the Central British Fund (or CBF) functioned as almost a British parallel to HIAS.

For examples, the CBF was instrumental in lobbying for the Kindertransport, and helped to resettle thousands of Jewish refugees after World War II. During the Cold War, the CBF assisted Jews evacuating Czechoslovakia in 1968 Soviet invasion, and provided food and medical assistance to Ethiopian Jews during Operation Moses. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the CBF extended aid to over two million Jews.

As the nature of humanitarian crises shifted in the post-Cold War era, the CBF, like HIAS, re-branded and changed its name to the “World Jewish Relief” in 1995 in recognition of the global nature of its work. Since then it has provided tsunami relief to Sri Lanka, was one of the first responders to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and is presently providing aid to refugees fleeing the Middle East.

Princess Anne

Due to the similarity of their missions, HIAS and the CBF shared a close working relationship. In 1986, HIAS President Robert Israeloff attended the CBF Annual Meeting in London. There, Israeloff and his wife, Bonnie Israeloff, had the occasion to meet Her Royal Highness Princess Anne. Anne’s brother Charles, the Prince of Wales, is the official patron of the organization. Pictured above.

A HIAS Staffer in the Archives

The HIAS archive project is twofold in nature. The first part–the part this blog is concerned with–relates to the processing of HIAS’ last 40-50 years of administrative files. The second part has to do with improving access to case files regarding those assisted by HIAS between the Second World War and the turn of the twenty-first century.

To handle the second part of this project we hired a database manager, Janet Yerokhina. Her job is to determine how to pull a massive amount of data stored in multiple formats into one database. Janet has been extracting and cleaning data, and creating a search screen for the public-facing interface. When completed the database will include fields of information about tens of thousands of HIAS clients.

ID card

ID card 2
This HIAS client registration card is one of the many formats Janet worked with in creating the the database.

As Janet went through the thousands of client files recovered from an old, out of date HIAS database, she would sometimes check for familiar last names. For, Janet and her family were HIAS clients themselves in the 1990s as they emigrated from Russia to the United States. One day, Janet came upon her mother’s fairly unique first name, followed by their surname, their first address in New York City, and information regarding other family members.

Part of the American Jewish story is one of immigration, so how fitting it is that a staff member of the American Jewish Historical Society should find her own story in our holdings.

Janet is still perfecting the database, but you can check it out here.

As a note, because much of this data is confidential and restricted, only certain pieces of information will be publicly available.

Edward M. Benton, HIAS attorney

Edward M. Benton was born into HIAS royalty – his father was John L. Bernstein, a founder in 1902 of the what we on the HIAS archives project understand to have been the first real predecessor organization of today’s Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. * John L. Bernstein remained on the HIAS board until his death in 1952. He was a lawyer, and provided pro bono legal services to HIAS for half a century.

Edward’s uncle was James Bernstein, a doctor in Brooklyn connected with Zion Hospital. He was director of HIAS activities in Europe approximately 1924-1947, having replaced E.W. Lewin-Epstein in the HIAS Warsaw office. (Followers of this blog may recall a previous post on E.W. Lewin Epstein.)

Edward M. Benton
Edward M. Benton

John’s son Edward was an attorney like his father, and seems to have officially become counsel to HIAS in 1952. Edward’s biographical form submitted as a member of the HIAS board of directors is below:

Board of Directors Biographical Form, Edward M. Benton, circa 1954
Board of Directors Biographical Form, Edward M. Benton, circa 1954

And in his biographical statement from the 1980s, he lists his various positions and accomplishments in connection with his long-time involvement with HIAS:

Edward M. Benton biography, page 3 - his long involvement with HIAS
Edward M. Benton biography, page 3 – his long involvement with HIAS

We have processed a small collection of Edward Benton’s files in the HIAS collection (Executive series/Executive Office/Other Executive Staff/Legal – Edward M. Benton), about one linear foot of files. There are a few files related to his father John’s work with HIAS (in HIAS president Ben Touster’s files and Executive Vice-President Isaac Asofsky’s files), and two files on John’s brother James (Program series/U.S. Operations/Location and Family History Service). Researchers will be able to locate these files on members of the Bernstein/Benton family when the completed finding aid is posted online at the end of 2018. Until then, contact the HIAS team through this blog if you are interested in seeing the files or browsing the related folder lists.

* Some credible sources give the history this way: the Hebrew Sheltering House Association (formed 1889) merged with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (1902) in 1909 to form the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). More detail will be available on the HIAS timeline, soon to be live on the HIAS archives project webpage.

HIAS and the Floating Department

One of the complexities of processing an institutional collection is that the institutions themselves do not function with the intent of making life easy for future archivists (shockingly enough). While the goal of the archivists processing this type of collection is to represent the internal organization of the institution as clearly as possible, sometimes organizations can become so complex that archivists must make difficult editorial choices in the name of accessibility and ease of use.

As I have previously discussed on this blog, HIAS—typically in cooperation with the Department of State and the UJA-Federation of New York—awarded grants to Jewish organizations across the country, which in turn used the money to resettle refugees. It was the Matching Grants Department which handled and kept careful record of that money.

Matching Grants comes across as a department that rather intentionally made itself difficult to trace. It would be reasonable to assume that Matching Grants existed within the Grant Management Department, which itself was situated within the Finance Department. However, that assumption would be incorrect.

Before 1993, Matching Grants was handled by an organization outside of HIAS; between 1993 and 2000, Matching Grants existed as its own department, separate from both Grant Management and US Operations; after the year 2000, Matching Grants existed under the umbrella of US Operations, a department which handles refugee resettlement. Complicating the picture is the fact that the staff names and handwritings attached to Matching Grants papers remained stable, even as the department floated around the HIAS organizational structure.

To represent this movement in the collection and finding aid, while aligned with the goals and practices of processing a large institutional collection, would prove confusing and unintuitive for future researchers. Therefore, we made the decision to organize Matching Grants into the Finance Series, as the vast majority of materials from Matching Grants are financial in nature.

Correspondence with AJHS

HIAS published a history of HIAS, “Visas to Freedom”, by Mark Wischnitzer in 1956. We recently found a 1957 letter from from Rabbi Isidore S. Meyer in the HIAS files we are processing, Meyer was at the time the Librarian-Archivist-Editor of the American Jewish Historical Society, and he was asking HIAS for a copy of the book for the Society’s library collection and a second copy for review in their quarterly publication.

Correspondence from AJHS to HIAS regarding the history of HIAS, "Visas to Freedom", 1957
Correspondence from AJHS to HIAS regarding the newly published history of HIAS, “Visas to Freedom”, 1957

Although there appears to be an “OK” written on the letter, it is unclear whether or not HIAS ever sent a review copy or a copy for the library to Rabbi Meyer as he requested. There is currently no copy in the AJHS library; there are copies of the book in our building, however, if a researcher is on-site and is looking for a book-length historical summary of HIAS’ work through the mid-1950s.

I was however able to locate a review of the book in the AJHS quarterly publication that Rabbi Meyer refers to, “Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society”, volume 48 number 2, December 1958. The review by Barbara M. Solomon at Wheelock College in Boston, is mixed. “The value of Visas to Freedom” is evident on the commemorative level … its thoroughness will make it a reference book within the narrow context of its subject … Despite a superficial attempt to describe the story of HIAS in its historical context, the book never presents a clear and cohesive account, one which might have human interest for readers unfamiliar with HIAS’ interesting and significant social contributions.”

The challenge remains to pull together the long story of HIAS in its historical context, not as a marketing tool for HIAS, but through scholarly research in the HIAS archives. The goal of our project is to make that research possible.

The Lewin-Epstein Family, and Other Leaders in the Jewish Community in early 20th Century New York

We recently learned of Marian Lewin-Epstein’s death on November 10. Familiar to me specifically because of her life-long involvement with Hadassah, Junior Hadassah and Hadassah-Israel and her presence in the Hadassah Archives, there is also a slim connection between Marian and HIAS: her husband’s grandfather E.W. Lewin-Epstein.

Marian grew up in Pennsylvania and became involved on the national level with Junior Hadassah after high school, in the 1940s. She can be found in the minutes of Junior Hadassah, attending meetings of the national board. She made aliyah to Israel after independence in 1948, and married Jacob Lewin-Epstein, a dentist at Hadassah Hospital like his father.

Jacob’s parents met aboard ship in 1918 as members of the American Zionist Medical Unit, funded through donations from Jewish communities throughout the United States, and organized by Henrietta Szold and the leadership of Hadassah in New York. The Unit left for Palestine as World War I was ending, in the summer of 1918, comprised of nurses, doctors, dentists, sanitarians and administrators and many tons of medical supplies including an ambulance donated by a Hadassah chapter. By the time the Unit arrived in Jerusalem, Madeline Epstein and Dr. Samuel Lewin-Epstein were engaged. Madeline’s memories of the trip can be found in her oral history. The business administrator of the Unit once it arrived in Palestine was Samuel’s father Eliahu Ze’ev (Wolf) Lewin-Epstein (generally referred to as E.W. Lewin-Epstein).

Madeline, E.W. and Samuel Lewin-Epstein in Palestine circa 1918
Madeline, E.W. and Samuel Lewin-Epstein in Jaffa, Palestine, circa 1918

E.W., born in 1864, was by the turn of the 20th century involved in the leadership of many Jewish and Zionist American organizations. A businessman, he also lived in Palestine at various times during his career. A brief and incomplete list of his involvements at the beginning of the 20th century include Vice-President of the Federation of American Zionists (predecessor to the Zionist Organization of America) (1907); served in some capacity in 1919 with the Zionist Commission to Palestine; treasurer of the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs (1914-1916). A brief JTA article from 1923 lists E.W. as “European representative of the Remittance department”, presumably of HIAS. More information can be found in his New York Times obituary.

Listed in his 1932 obituary as a director of HIAS, he was also a member of the board of the National Refugee Service (NRS), which was in existence from 1933 to 1946 and whose work was eventually folded into HIAS.

E.W. Lewin-Epstein was among the handful of Jewish men (and fewer women) of his generation living in New York around the turn of the century, who became prominent leaders of relief and social service organizations, and Zionist organizations, such as the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, HIAS, NRS, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. The leaders listed as involved with the Provisional Executive Committee at the start of WWI are good examples: Louis Brandeis, Henrietta Szold, Louis Lipsky, E.W. Lewin-Epstein, Stephen Wise, Judah Magnes and Harry Friedenwald. Others, such as Solomon Lowenstein and William Rosenwald, can also be found funding and/or leading organizations. Working largely as volunteers in some capacity – financial, political – they were for decades the driving force in the rescue of Jewish refugees, in providing a better life for recent immigrants and the poor in New York and around the United States, and in helping to create an infrastructure in Palestine in anticipation of a Jewish homeland there.