Carolyn Agress served as the Director of Membership Services at HIAS beginning in 1989. She coordinated membership campaigns, working with board members to solicit contributions, and overseeing the details of multiple campaigns per year. These donations represented a key component of the organization’s budget.
This Yom Kippur, those of us working on the HIAS processing project take inspiration from Carolyn, whose integrity and professionalism shine clearly through the records.
In August 1961 Raphael Spanien, Deputy Director of HIAS headquarters in Paris, corresponded with Ann Petluck, at the time the Director of US Operations for HIAS in New York, about the difficulty in scheduling charter flight schedules, as well as travel by ship, for clients otherwise prepared to immigrate to the United States during the Jewish holidays in the fall of 1961.
“… I have tried to arrange an earlier booking in order that this family should not arrive on the first day of Succoth. The only possibility was an arrival Erev Yom Kippur. I think it is better … to arrive the first day of Succoth …”
Spanien reveals several things in the space of this two-page letter. First, that he is doing all he can to be respectful of his clients’ religious needs and also the urgency to complete their long transition to a more permanent home as soon as possible. He also reveals his personal limited first-hand knowledge of the holidays and when travel would be problematic for an observant family (and also for HIAS staff and volunteers in Europe and in the United States). The following sentence in particular is in its way charming, as well as illustrative of the logistics involved in booking passage, after the hard work of obtaining visas was completed:
… I really believe that to postpone these departure arrangements now would mean serious hardships for these families, since their tickets have been delivered and their baggage sent to the boat. Moreover, since the[y] arrive on the Friday preceding the second days of Succoth, I don’t really see any reason why this departure should now be changed. The Sunday, October 1st, being Hoshano Rabo, which by no means is a holiday, and as far as I remember the only obligation Jews have on this day is to ‘eat kreplach’, why can’t these people be entrained Saturday evening and arrive at their destination during the day of Sunday, Erev Shemini Azereth?
In closing the letter, Spanien also reveals how fond he is of Ann Petluck. By 1961 they would have worked together for at least a few years and possibly much longer. (Petluck had worked at the National Refugee Service (NRS) from at least 1943, continued at United Service for New Americans (USNA) when it took over NRS projects and staff in 1946, and then at HIAS when it took over USNA projects and staff in 1954.) Through all of these years HIAS held an annual Migration Conference which they both would have attended, and where they most likely met each other for the first time. Between conferences they communicated constantly on specific cases; they clearly worked hard to make the transition from a HIAS European transit office to HIAS care in the United States (or elsewhere) as easy as possible for their clients. Even in the post-war year of 1961 these clients might have been between permanent homes for months or years.
Those of us working on the HIAS archives project join Raphael Spanien in his traditional words (with the Ashkenazi pronunciation) at this High Holiday season:
… I don’t think that there will be any better opportunity for me to wish you and your family, your staff, and all our friends in New York a happy and healthy Year. Leshono tovu tikusevu …
How did HIAS say Happy Hanukah in 1964? The same way most non-profit organizations acknowledge holidays today – with a fundraising appeal.
This membership appeal for donations was signed by HIAS president Murray Gurfein. Gurfein was president from 1956 to 1957, and again from 1960-1967. A lawyer and in active service during WWII, Gurfein led accomplished professional and volunteer careers. An article in The Forward on March 18, 1956 details his involvement with the Nuremberg trials after WWII, and sums up his life up to that point: “Murray Gurfein helped prosecute the Nazi Leaders—He was decorated by three countries for his activities in the second world war … now he has been elected president of the United HIAS Service. He is a son of a Galician Jew …”
For many people, that would be a satisfying summation of a life well-lived. But there was more. Gurfein had a successful law practice for more than 30 years. And in 1971 he was appointed to the United States District Court by President Richard M. Nixon. More on Murray Gurfein and his first case on the Appeals Court next week.
It is easy to forget that 1964 was a year of increased migration due to “political and economic unrest in various parts of the world,” according to HIAS’ Hanukah letter. At the end of November 1964 HIAS forecast the number of refugees they resettled at a 70% increase over 1963. The “more than 51,000 Jewish men, women and children” helped by HIAS in 1964 included those from Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Cuba, 23 persons from China and 11 from India. Access to information on emigration specifics will be available when the HIAS archives project is completed at the end of 2018.
We join Murray Gurfein in his closing, “With many thanks, and with hearty Hanukkah Greetings” from the HIAS project staff – Lawrence, Elizabeth, Janet and Susan.