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.

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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.

1957 Holiday Message from Murray Gurfein

In the fall of 1957, Murray Gurfein was Chairman of the United HIAS Executive Committee. A holiday message was printed on the front page of the September-October 1957 issue, number XXI, of “Inside United HIAS Service”:

Holiday Message from Murray Gurfein
1957 High Holy Day Message from Murray Gurfein

Always “on message”, Gurfein’s words emphasized the many Jews still living in difficult circumstances in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East:

Hope for assistance in immigration to welcoming havens
Hope in the new year for assistance to Jews seeking “welcoming havens”

“Inside United HIAS Service” was published beginning in 1954 (after the merger between HIAS, the United Service for New Americans (USNA) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Migration Department), and appears to have continued at least into the mid-1980s. The archives include issues from 1954-1961. A successor publication, “Inside HIAS”, includes issues from 1981-1983.

Best wishes from the HIAS project staff for a good New Year and an enjoyable Sukkot.

“Your representatives just disappeared from Sao Paulo” …

After World War II, HIAS and other immigration organizations focused on relocating survivors of the war to safe and financially stable towns and cities around the world. There were Jewish communities throughout Latin and South America, and because of existing restrictive immigration laws in the United States, Canada, and much of western Europe, the best option for thousands of Jewish families without friends or family to sponsor them elsewhere (and who did not want to emigrate to Israel), was to relocate to Latin or South America. [HIAS categorized all of these countries as “Latin America” in their filing taxonomy, and I will do the same in this post.]

HIAS set up offices in the cities with the best potential for accommodating new immigrants. Cities for which we have files, from about 1946-1960 include Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, Brazil; Santiago, Chile; Quito Ecuador and Caracas Venezuela.

These files were created and maintained by two related departments within the Overseas Operations Division. The Latin America desk was managed in those years by Ilja Dijour (in conjunction with an extensive research and reference department), at the HIAS world headquarters in New York City. We have processed about 2 1/2 bankers boxes of Dijour’s files on Latin American cities, which include correspondence and monthly statistical reports from HIAS representatives on changing immigration issues in their respective communities. There are also more general country folders on countries in which HIAS was active as well as other countries around the world.

A smaller group of just 6 thick folders document in part the work of Dr. Henry Shoskes, HIAS overseas representative, who traveled throughout the Latin American region during the decade that his files encompass. Two folders are on Latin America and contain correspondence and reports, mostly from Shoskes to the leadership at HIAS in New York, with information on issues of resettling specific groups of recent arrivals; statistical reports; proposed budgets for the coming year in specific HIAS offices based on the number of immigrants HIAS expected to work with; and issues relating to the local economic conditions and the functioning (or not) of the local Jewish community leadership.

Some of this local leadership had been in Latin America long enough to be fluent in Spanish or Portuguese, but for easier communication with staff from the New York office, including Dijour and Shoskes, many of the documents in these files are in Yiddish or German – more common languages for both Latin American and American Jews in the post-WWII years. In limited instances translations are provided, probably by staff in the New York office.

A document that caught my eye while processing was this cable, in German, sent in March 1954 from Federacao Kahan, the President of the Sao Paolo Jewish federation, about the situation in HIAS’ office there. [From Dijour’s file overseas operations/cities/Sao Paolo correspondence 1954.]

"As we had feared ..."
“As we had feared …”

A similar cable was sent to the Joint the same day.  The translation from the German is below:

From president of HIAS office in Sao Paolo
From president of HIAS office in Sao Paolo

Unfortunately, there is no more information about the situation in the files. A brief report in the JTA from January 31, 1954 supplies some background. And more information on the immigrants from the Foehrenwald camp (mentioned in the JTA report, an important clue) in Germany can be found in these Latin American files.

HIAS office in Israel, 1950s-1960s

Among the material found in the six boxes from the office of Valery Bazarov, Director of HIAS Location and Family History Service, was a box of files, documents and artifacts from the HIAS office in Israel. According to a printout of an email found with the files, this material was sent to Valery by Neil Grungras, then HIAS Director of Europe and the Middle East.

The files are mostly those of Alexander Arnon, the Director of the Israel office, circa 1964-1968. In the 1960s the Israel office provided “special migration services, welfare counseling, location, loan and remittance services, in addition to liaison relationships with [the g]overnment and the Jewish Agency”. [Information on the Israel office from the HIAS 1965 Annual Report]

Artifacts include 2 large guest books, signed by visitors and guests at HIAS House in the Negev during the 10 years it was owned by HIAS, 1955-1965.

Includes signature of Sobeloff, then Solicitor General of the United States
Includes signature of Simon Sobeloff *, then Solicitor General of the United States

Originally HIAS House was built to provide accommodations for scientists and technicians working on the reclamation of the Negev desert. The opening ceremony was on September 16, 1955 (61 years ago today as it turns out). Ten years later, after completing its original function, the building was sold “at cost” to the municipality of Beersheba for the use of the Institute for Higher Education in the Negev, and was renamed, “University in the HIAS House”. That November, 1965, 250 students and 43 professors held classes there; it was planned that HIAS House would eventually become part of the University of Beersheba.

Also in the box was a photograph album, mostly unlabeled, but apparently of facilities for recent immigrants, “olim”, built in various locations around Israel and funded in part by HIAS.

Building for new immigrants in Israel, circa 1950s
Building for new immigrants in Israel, circa 1950s

From the photographs of the signs on some of the buildings it appears that HIAS participated in this project in conjunction with various political parties and other Israeli entities, including the Progressive Party in Israel, Histadrut and Hapoel Hamizrachi in Israel. Recently, we discovered in Finance Department files financial reports from the related HIAS entity, “Mishkenot Olim”.

One loose item from the Israel office materials has already proved helpful in responding to a research question from HIAS about overseas offices – an undated address list of HIAS staff and affiliates around the world.

HIAS Address List, 1976, from the HIAS office in Israel.
HIAS Address List, 1976, from the HIAS office in Israel.

The list is from 1976; someone from the Israel office apparently kept it updated through about 1989.

We hope in the coming months to find materials from other overseas HIAS offices. Stay tuned.

* Simon Sobeloff was the brother of Isidore Sobeloff – See AJHS collection I-433 for more information about Isidore