HIAS and the Jewish Agency, 1961-1986

This envelope was rubber-banded to a folder titled, “J.A./HIAS”, from the European Headquarters files. This particular files is part of the subject files of Ernest Berger, Director of the Geneva office, approximately 1982-1995, and incorporates related, earlier correspondence of his predecessor Leonard Seidenman (1967-1981) and Seidenman’s predecessor, Harold Trobe (1957-1961).

What is going on between HIAS and the Jewish Agency?

The documents themselves date from 1961-1986, and the file may have been Berger’s Jewish Agency file from when he was a “Secretary” in the HIAS Paris office. Correspondents include:

  • HIAS Executive Vice-Presidents (based in New York) James P. Rice, Gaynor Jacobson, Leonard Seidenman (in that role after being transferred from his position as Director of the Geneva office), and Karl D. Zukerman
  • Directors of the HIAS office in Tel Aviv Menachem Kraicer (until his death in 1964) and Haim Halachmi.

HIAS and the Jewish Agency worked together very closely throughout the second half of the 20th century, of course, as both organizations were focused on rescuing and resettling Jewish refugees safely. The issue of contention between them as highlighted in this file is regarding Jews desiring to leave their country of birth who are able to get visas only for Israel, but would prefer to permanently settle elsewhere. Once in the transit country – often Vienna or Rome – they manage to get visas for the United States.

The Jewish Agency referred to these refugees as “Drop-outs”. HIAS’ stance was that they were obliged to help refugees with resettlement in the location they preferred, whenever possible; the Jewish Agency wanted as many Jews as possible to make Aliyah and settle in Israel. Faced with a lot of negative press about harming Aliyah to Israel, in 1983, Ernest Berger wrote to Leonard Seidenman, then Executive VP in the NY office, in a memo attached to a report on the situation: “… anyone we don’t take, will find his way to the non-Jewish organizations [aiding refugees alongside HIAS] … and Israel would still be no better off.” (There is mention here of “Rav Tov”; which, according to the New York Times, was in 1982 a Hasidic “anti-Zionist organization in the United States.)

Thoughts on how to encourage greater Aliyah among Soviet refugees, 1983

In his full report to Seidenman, Berger also said, “… if we really want to do the right thing by Israel, and salve our consciences (and reputation) in the process, and even though the results may be negligible, we ought to at least take some steps to try to decrease the rate of Neshira [Drop out], e.g. by

  • refusing to accept people whose only relatives are in Israel
  • refusing to accept people with a first-degree relative in Israel and, say, only a cousin in the West.”

Berger asked for comments and suggestions on his full report from some of the European offices, and received replies from Evi Eller in Rome and from an unnamed correspondent in Paris. The Paris correspondent is not hopeful that anything they do will be helpful in increasing Aliyah to Israel. But he ends with a plea for the dissemination of factual information.

Response from Paris, page 2
Response from Paris, page 1

HIAS, Refugees and Immigration: The Hard Work of Humantarianism

For over 100 years, HIAS has worked to rescue those whose best hope for survival was a visa to the United States. There has been a lot of news about immigration and refugees in the past week, and the past few years with the growing numbers of people around the world running from unsafe situations because of war, drought, disease and poverty. HIAS works every day to safely resettle in welcoming communities those they are able to bring to the United States.

Here are three links to recent news about HIAS and President/CEO Mark Hetfield:  JTA article from shortly after the election; follow Hetfield on Twitter; see what HIAS has been working on in the past week.

Of course, what the HIAS archives project team is working on relates to HIAS’ work in past decades. Virtually every document we touch from the 1500 or so boxes that are part of this project relates to one aspect or another of the rescue or resettlement process – raising money through grants and direct solicitation, lobbying for more inclusive and welcoming immigration legislation, walking families through the application process for visas, working with representatives of communities committed to welcoming immigrants to their cities and towns. As the flow of Jewish immigrants slowed after WWII, HIAS began aiding immigrants of all religions, wherever the need was greatest. Below are three documents from the different series we are currently working with:

  1. 1951 – “Nominal Rolls” – These lists of passengers arriving by ship range in date from 1947 to 1963, with the bulk of the lists from the early 1950s towards the end of the huge influx of post-World War II immigrants. Data for each immigrant in the lists includes name, religion, country of birth, marital status and age, occupation and sponsor. The page below is from the list of passengers on the May 1951 ocean crossing of the General Sturgis. The cable that accompanied the 79 page list indicated that there were 1310 passengers on the ship, that 80 were Jewish and that 15 of those were sponsored by HIAS.

    Weber family from Hungary, includes parents and 4 children

      Page 77, lines 1334-1339, lists the Weber family from Hungary and Germany, including parents and 4 children
  2. This 1997 Grant Payment Voucher demonstrates the practicalities of HIAS’ vital refugee rescue and resettlement work.matching-grant-payment-vouchersIn cooperation with the Department of State, national UJA and local Jewish federations, HIAS awarded grants to Jewish organizations across the country. Those organizations would then use the grant money to resettle refugees in their communities.In this document, from the Finance series of the HIAS collection, HIAS is sending the Greater Miami Jewish Federation a portion of the total grant money allocated to that organization.

    These costs would go towards job training, housing, language lessons, health care, child care, counseling if needed. It was also used for job preparedness workshops, and educational materials aimed to help refugees acclimate to life in America.

    While these particular records don’t detail how the organizations used the grant money, they do demonstrate a piece of the HIAS infrastructure in place to resettle refugees.

  3. In 1974, HIAS Executive Vice President Gaynor Jacobson was serving as chair of the Migration and Refugee Affairs Committee of the American Council of Voluntary Agencies for Foreign Service (ACVA), of which HIAS was a member group, when he received this photograph of a refugee camp in Tư Cung, Vietnam. The huts pictured were said to have been burned down by the Viet Cong a month after the picture was taken.

At this time, HIAS was itself involved in resettling Vietnamese refugees in the U.S., operating out of Fort Chaffee and Camp Pendleton. Soon after, the State Department would enlist the help of HIAS, along with the other Volags, in resettling the Vietnamese boat people.

Tư Cung, which is actually a hamlet in the village of Sơn Mỹ, along with Mỹ Lai and My Khe, is home to a memorial for the Sơn Mỹ massacre, what we in America call the “Mỹ Lai massacre.”

Listening to Financial Records

I’m processing the Finance Series of the larger HIAS collection. Within that series, the largest subseries is Grant Management.

Grant Management is, well, what it says on the label. HIAS, generally in cooperation with the Department of State and the UJA-Federation of New York, would award grants to Jewish organizations across the country, and those organizations in turn would use the money to resettle refugees. These organizations were typically branches of larger Jewish organizations such as the United Jewish Federation, the United Jewish Fund, the Jewish Family Service, and the Jewish Vocational Service. This pre-existing organizational structure of the US Jewish community allowed for HIAS’ resettlement efforts to be as effective as those of other, larger organizations.

hias184

One of the record types to be found in the Grant Management subseries.

The record types in the Grant Management subseries consist of audits, tax forms, check and payment requests, accountant commentary, financial statements, financial status reports, organized by community, and spanning the years from 1990 to 2004.

While these records are overtly dull, taken together they weave a narrative. This narrative tells us where refugees were placed, what they needed, assistance types provided, and how HIAS oversaw and monitored the allocation of these funds.

The history of immigration is fascinating, and it is important to keep in mind that this isn’t just a history of movement and human displacement, but it is a history of the money which made those movements possible.

“Understanding U.S. Refugee Policy”: HIAS, the Personal, and the Political

This post originally appeared as a talk presented at the ART Symposium in New York City on October 20.

While HIAS leadership was influential in shaping and advocating for immigration policy reform, HIAS’ Communications Department was busy attending to the personal side of these political machinations.

United States refugee policy is shaped to correspond with U.S. foreign policy interests. This creates a legislative reality in which some refugees are welcomed, while the rest are excluded in all but name. In the case of Soviet Jewish refugees in the late 1980s and early 1990s, U.S. refugee policy worked in their favor.

With restrictions somewhat eased, HIAS created publications specifically to explain U.S. refugee policy to prospective Russian Jewish refugees. One such publication is a 1992 pamphlet titled “Understanding U.S. Refugee policy,” printed in English and Russian.

understanding-us-refugee-policyPamphlet cover in both language editions; Roberta Elliott headed the HIAS Communications department when this pamphlet was released.

The pamphlet clearly outlines the steps necessary to apply to emigrate to the United States as a refugee. Though the restrictions were somewhat relaxed, it was still a complex process. For example, one of the opening paragraphs reads, “Under present guidelines of the U. S. refugee program, certain categories of people within the former Soviet Union (Jews, Evangelical Christians, Ukrainian Catholics and members of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Churches) are identified as likely targets of persecution. If you are a member of one of these designated groups AND if you have a close relative in the U. S., you will be granted priority in the processing of your application for refugee status and in the scheduling of your interview at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.”

It details what, in the eyes of US immigration law, constitutes a “close relative,” and outlines policy exceptions. It explains the two components of the application process–a Preliminary Questionnaire to provide biographical information, and an Affidavit of Relationship to prove relationships between the prospective immigrant and their US relatives–and explains why these steps were put into place.

Through the publication and distribution of this pamphlet, the HIAS Communications Department was able to take its Executives’ lobbying and influence, and bring those politics down to the individual level, empowering those who may have otherwise been shut out.

Movie tickets, 1953

On a hot summer day, a story of helping entertain kids in the summer of 1953:

On June 19, HIAS President Ben Touster wrote to Harry Brandt, the owner of a chain of movie theaters. Touster was clearly acquainted with Brandt, although from the file it is not clear how Brandt was affiliated with HIAS.

touster requests
Ben Touster requests movie tickets for children and adults in the HIAS shelter, June 1953

HIAS began in 1884 (date of origin to be explored in a later post) as a “sheltering society”, providing temporary shelter for recent immigrants. By 1953, in addition to all the other immigrant and refugee assistance HIAS offered (according to the 1953 annual report, these services included documentation, reception at ports and airports, and “immigrant sheltering”), immigrants were still rotating through their shelter. The shelter was then located in the HIAS administrative office building at 425-437 Lafayette Avenue. Also from the annual report that year: “Sheltering service is furnished not only to immigrants entering the United States under HIAS’ auspices, but also to those sponsored by other agencies or helped here by private individuals.

“The HIAS shelter is a Jewish dwelling place in the strictest tradition of the Jewish people. The kitchens and dining rooms are under the supervision of an ordained and experienced rabbi, insuring proper observance of the kashruth; sleeping quarters are comfortable; medical and dental service are provided for those who need such care; there is a synagogue on the premises, and all religious functions and holidays are observed in the orthodox manner. A kindergarten, under the supervision of adequate and competent directors, serves pre-school children.”

Children at HIAS shelter, Chanukah 1953 (from 1953 Annual Report)
Children at HIAS shelter, Chanukah 1953 (from 1953 Annual Report)

So it seems that what was needed was entertainment for the kids (and the adults, when they weren’t tracking down paperwork or looking for work) in the summer, and what better way to entertain kids in the summer than by sending them to an air conditioned movie?

Touster requested a block of movie tickets every week for kids in their care from Harry Brandt, who was the founder with his brothers of Brandt Theatres. Here is Brandt’s reply:

offers to arrange
Harry Brandt offers to arrange for tickets

Someone pencilled in three movie theaters near the shelter on Lafayette Street:

The Charles, at 193 Avenue B near 12th Street, opened in 1926 as the Bijou Theater. It became a church in the 2000s, and the building was demolished in 2012. The Greenwich was at the corner of 12th Street, just west of 7th Avenue, and is now an Equinox health club. The Palestine on Clinton Street became the Winston in the 1960s and was partially demolished in 1971.

Touster’s response is below:

list of theaters near LES
Final document in the file

No further correspondence is in the file; one can only hope that Harry Brandt was able to supply HIAS clients with movie tickets in the summer of 1953.