Fannie G. Steiner, United HIAS Service Senior Field Representative

We recently received a donation from the grandson of long-time HIAS employee, Fannie G. Steiner: a folder of 1958 correspondence, mostly to and about Fannie and her imminent retirement.

One document that gave us a little background on Fannie was a memo to the Directors of Local Cooperating Agencies dated October 28, 1958, regarding Fannie’s retirement. The memo was signed by Executive Director James P. Rice and Director of US Operations Ann S. Petluck, and it gave a summary of her work with refugees and immigrants beginning years before joining HIAS.

Fannie’s refugee and immigrant aid work “began in the early Hitler period”…. she was hired by the National Refugee Service (NRS) in 1939 as supervisor of Intake and later as supervisor of a unit in the Family Services department. Fannie joined the field staff of United Service for New Americans (USNA) in 1942; In 1956, after the merger between USNA and HIAS, Fannie was appointed senior field representative at United HIAS Service (UHS) in charge of Community Services. This is the position from which she retired at the end of October 1958.

Fannie G. Steiner retirement announced by United HIAS Service, 1958, page 1

Congratulatory letters from those at Federations and Jewish Family and Children’s Services around the country who worked with Fannie in resettlement through the years comprise the bulk of the file. Letters include those from Jewish Family and Children’s Service, Detroit; Albany Jewish Social Service; Jewish Welfare Federation of San Francisco; and the Shreveport Jewish Federation.


Response to news of Fannie’s retirement from Jacob C. Guthartz, the Executive Director of Jewish Social Services, Inc., Indianapolis, Indiana

Dora Margolis, Executive Director of Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Boston, wrote, “you should have much satisfaction in terms of the excellent work you did during a critical period in the lives of our people. Historically this will always be looked to as a momentous task – this re-settlement of Jews in the United States.”

Albert Comanor, Executive Director of Jewish Family Service (JFS) in Miami, wrote a very personal letter that began, “When I think back over the journeyings, the dramatic peaks, the interludes, the changing faces in the parade, the varying qualities in the interpersonal relationships, the disputes, the charges, the disagreements, the parties and bent elbows, the twitching ambitions, the surges and the uncertainties, the great cloud of alien voices down the gangplank or in the halls — that whole long parade — yes, I think you have earned a retirement.”

From Albert Comaner, then working at Jewish Family Service in Miami.

Comanor had been Fannie’s supervisor when he was assistant executive director at USNA. He doesn’t exactly apologize for having been not “always gracious”, but he clearly thought as  highly of Fannie as all her other 70-some correspondents upon hearing of her retirement.

When we first received this file, not knowing anything about Fannie or her work with HIAS, we googled her name. Fannie G. Steiner is the rare name that, when googled, yields exactly one hit* – a Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) file of news clippings from 1960-1961 on the topic of Cuban refugees.

In a Miami Herald article titled, “Top Jewish Agency Opens Office Here For Cuba Refugees”, Fannie is identified as “an experienced resettlement worker” from New York, who in December 1960 took over the management of the HIAS office at the Cuban Emergency Center in Miami from Frederick Fried, head of HIAS’ Community Service Department in New York.

One mystery that remains are the details of Fannie coming out of retirement two years later to take over this work in Miami. Perhaps she maintained a relationship with HIAS as a consultant after her retirement, because the work of aiding refugees and immigrants never ends.

* Her name received one hit on google in March 2017; this week it received at least two.


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.

“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.

“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

PR stories from London Office, 1952

Earlier this year I worked on about a box and a half of Ben Touster files from the first two years he was president of HIAS, 1952-1954. The files that survived long enough to make their way to the HIAS archives appear random, and pre-date most of the HIAS files that are part of our project. Perhaps these files survived an earlier purging. Or perhaps, like other lay leaders, much of Touster’s HIAS work was done at home, or he had his files sent home after his presidency. Or, also like other lay leaders, he may have directed the organization and led the board of directors, but left the paperwork to the paid staff.

Unfortunately we have so far in this project identified only a few other boxes of files from the Executive Office from the early 1950s; with the merger in 1954 of HIAS with USNA to form United HIAS Service, it is possible that many files were inadvertently lost or destroyed.

Touster’s files include a thick one on HIAS founder John L. Bernstein, and two files of financial reports. And 13 files, over a third of the total Touster subseries, deal with HIAS offices – international offices in Canada, Africa, Australia, Europe, Israel and South America, as well as offices in major cities in the United States – Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington. These files are filled mostly with correspondence and reports to and from each of the offices.

One particularly interesting memorandum found in the Europe office file was sent to Touster by Martin A. Bursten, then the Director of HIAS’s Public Relations department in New York. Written in a breezy 1950s style it is marked “personal”.

Marty Bursten lists PR stories learned in London office
Marty Bursten lists PR stories learned in London office, 1952

Bursten recaps some of the stories he has seen and heard first hand by spending some time in the London office of HIAS. He “studied the files and listened to the cases being handled”, and exclaims, “If anybody … ever tells me that there is nothing doing here, I’ll wave my notes violently to belie the claims.”

He briefly describes the work of the London office, primarily supplying funding or help with visas for people trying to join relatives in America, Canada or Israel. “I am taking pictures of these people today in their homes, and here in the office. THIS IS WHAT MY DEPARTMENT WILL LIVE ON IN THE MONTHS TO COME.”

In a way, that statement in caps sums up what HIAS was doing in those post-WWII years, helping people reunite with relatives or simply get started in a new country. Although few in number, the Touster files give us a snapshot of that work.

I’ll end with Bursten’s post script: “P.S. This cockney typewriter should apply for a HIAS pension!”


From Tunisia, with Love

HIAS was truly an “international organization” in the sense of intrigue that the phrase suggests. Well…not really…but working in foreign countries with their particular laws and customs could put an international aid worker in a compromising position.

Such was the position in which Al Goldstein, director of operations in Tunisia, found himself when he tried to do a friend a favor. We came across records of his plight in the files of James P. Rice, Executive Vice President of United HIAS Service from 1956 to 1966.

The Jewish population in Tunisia had been in a steady decline since the events leading up to independence from France in 1954, and by 1964, the Jewish population of Tunisia had declined by 92%.[1]

Mostly this decline was caused by unemployment, but by the time of the Bizerte Crisis, in 1961, President Bourguiba’s increasing rapprochement with the Arab League nations and burgeoning anti-Israel sentiment caused many Tunisian Jews to worry about their future in Tunisia. Antisemitism, which had been largely absent in Tunisia (especially in government), became a more frequent occurrence.[2]

But the biggest threat to Jewish life in Tunisia was the economy. The lingering economic toll of the struggle for independence, the departure of many middle-class French Tunisians after independence, along with increasing government regulation and control of the economy threatened the stability of the merchant class of Tunisia, “in which Jews were heavily represented.”[3,4]

It was in such a context that Alphonse Fall, a Tunisian publisher and printer, decided to sell his business at a great loss and expatriate to Marseilles. But in order to get his money out of the country, his brother, Joseph Fall, head of the Caisse Israélite de Relèvement Economique loan kassa[5] in Tunisia, needed someone with access to foreign accounts to, in a sense, ‘launder’ 3,000 dinars (about $7,500).

Enter Albert Goldstein, colleague of Joseph Fall. As can be seen from the timeline below, Goldstein agreed to the transaction, which he said was pretty routine among Tunisians for getting money past the tight restrictions on currency exchange.

Goldstein had returned from Marseille, where he had made the transaction with Alphonse Fall, when he was arrested on December 19th, 1963, by a “special brigade of the economic police.”

Goldstein was released on January 17, 1964, and had to pay a fine in the amount he transferred and repay HIAS for the legal fees incurred. Needless to say, Goldstein was fired soon after.

It’s not clear from the records what became of Joseph Fall. We know that he was treated much worse by the customs authorities than Goldstein. But the date of his release, his punishment, and what he went on to do is still a mystery.

It’s no Midnight Express, but the travails of Al Goldstein are a reminder of the precarious position of HIAS officers in North Africa at a time of shifting identities and loyalties.

Finally, in the spirit of fairness, we give Goldstein the last word. Here is his own narrative of the events and motivations that got him incarcerated.


[5] Loan kassas are free loan societies created by the Joint Distribution Committee.