Telex technology allowed organizations like HIAS, with far-flung offices and correspondents, to communicate for the first time among offices and affiliates around the world,.inexpensively, on a daily basis. The difference in the speed of communication changed the course of international business enormously.

I’ve been working with the office files of Irving Haber, the Director of Administration and Finance at HIAS’ European headquarters in Paris and later Geneva, from about 1954 to 1979, when he was transferred to the New York office.

In Haber’s files throughout the 1970s, the prevalence of printed telexes shows how content and clarity could be considered secondary to speed when communicating with the New York office, or the various HIAS offices in Vienna, Belgrade, Rome, Wellington (NZ), Tel Aviv, Tunis and elsewhere.

1971 Telex regarding situation in Egypt

The telex above was written by Ernest Berger, from the Geneva office, to Executive VP Gaynor Jacobson in New York. They must not have considered a telex to be a secure communication, because Berger does not mention the cities or the country he is writing about.

Because telexes were charged by time, much like a phone call, correspondence by telex took on the abbreviations and no-nonsense business-only exchange of information we know today from texting. Reports, forms, and the occasional handwritten correspondence continued by postal service, and was never entirely replaced with telexing – fortunately for us, because so much can be read into even business correspondence that is addressed to “My Dear Jean”,

1971 letter beginning, “My dear Jean”

or that has a hastily handwritten note below the typed letter.

1975 memo from the HIAS office in Paris to Jean Goldsmith in the Geneva office

Also lost when sending and receiving by telex is letterhead information, and signatures. And size and quality of stationery – remember airmail onionskin paper? Aerograms? Both exist in Haber’s files.

By the early 1980s, of course, faxing took over for telexing when speed was a priority, presenting other issues of content, form and preservation to the researcher and to archivists. And yet more issues have arisen with long-term archival access to e-mail – something we are still working to gain control over in the archives profession.

The ability to have written text delivered nearly instantaneously to an associate’s office half-way around the world became the default for nearly all communication for obvious reasons. As archivists we continue to marvel at the fast changes in technology as we work through decades of files, and we continue to work to preserve physical records in any format and make them accessible.



Vienna, 1968

Lottie Levinson was a Canadian who moved to Germany at the end of WWII to work for UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) in Germany. Lottie is pictured in this photograph, visiting a DP camp in 1948 with other Canadians. From about 1946 to 1954 Lottie worked for the Joint Distribution Committee, when her department merged with HIAS; she worked in the Paris office of United HIAS Service (UHS) from 1954 to 1958 when she became director of the HIAS office in Vienna, and was replaced in Paris by Ivor Svarc who moved from the HIAS office in Tunis.

In 1968 Lottie was the Director of the Vienna office for UHS, in charge of the UHS work in Germany and Austria. On November 22, 1968 she wrote a letter to the Executive Vice-President of HIAS in New York, Gaynor Israel Jacobson, relaying the details of a meeting she had had the day before. She had met with two women who were apparently involved with UJA of Greater New York, Elaine Siris (later Winik) and Patricia Gantz.

Lottie Levinson 1968 letter to Gaynor Jacobson page 1

Lottie told them about the HIAS program in Vienna at that time, including the number of Jewish refugees from Czechoslovakia and Poland leaving through the HIAS office, and whether the emigrants preferred to resettle in the United States or in Israel. The two visitors from New York were also interested in how involved HIAS was with potential emigrants, in terms of counselling and what Lottie referred to as “interventions”. I understand this term refers to an intervention with another agency on the applicant’s behalf – all in addition to the “technical” work of obtaining visas and permissions and transit details.

Most fascinating was Lottie’s description to Mrs. Gantz of HIAS’ particular interest in working with as many of the Jewish refugees as they could:

Lottie Levinson 1968 letter to Gaynor Jacobson page 2

“… we preferred registration to be made with our agency, where Jewish refugees were concerned, as in this way we had some control and there was identification with a Jewish agency and that this identification would continue in an overseas country through our introduction of the cases concerned to our cooperating committees overseas.” (“Cooperating committees” refers to the local community Federations and other Jewish councils who assisted immigrants in every aspect of settling in their community.)

Lottie continues, “In this way many of the refugees who had little Jewish identification in their countries of origin would tend to become part of the Jewish communities in their countries of emigration.

Lottie Levinson 1968 letter to Gaynor Jacobson page 3

The alternative is that the process of assimilation, which had begun in their countries of origin, would be continued overseas.”

Today HIAS works with mostly non-Jewish immigrants and refugees, and it remains important that whoever they are helping find a welcoming community that will respect their customs, culture and religion, whatever it may be.

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